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After years as justice, John Paul Stevens wants what's 'best for the court'

"He's the most unassuming person I've ever met," Doumar said. "He has no airs about him -- he never goes to the front of the buffet line, he always waits his turn."

Diane Marie Amann, a former Stevens law clerk who has written extensively about her old boss, said his life outside Washington has been important to him.

"I think one of the secrets of his longevity on the court is the very vibrant personal life he has maintained outside the court," said Amann, who is a law professor at the University of California at Davis. "Having maintained a place where he can be something other than an associate justice has served him well."

Taking on leadership role

Stevens has cordial relations with the other members of the court, but he isn't part of the Washington party circuit and gives few speeches apart from an annual talk to the judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago. That is where he grew up, and he was a circuit judge there when President Gerald R. Ford tapped him for the Supreme Court in 1975.

It is notable that he is one of the last justices whose ideology was not a major part of the calculus that led to his nomination. The Senate unanimously confirmed him 19 days after his nomination.

The lack of controversy may be one reason he has never been firmly established in the public's mind. And for a time, his votes fit a moderately conservative pattern, though he often struck out on his own in the legal reasoning he used to get to a result.

"He was known mostly as being idiosyncratic for many years," said University of North Carolina law professor Michael Gerhardt, a student of the court. "But as time went on, roughly in the last decade or so, he made a very conscious, very deliberate decision to take on a leadership role."

As the senior justice, Stevens has the power to decide which justice writes the opinion when the chief justice is not in the majority. It is that ability to shape historic outcomes, rather than a distinct judicial philosophy or strength of personality, that has marked Stevens's tenure, according to Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett, a law clerk to William H. Rehnquist, the former chief justice.

"I wonder if a big part of it is luck," Garnett said. "He was the senior justice for a bloc on the court, the liberal bloc, that was stable for an unusually long period of time. And by being the senior guy, he was able to control the crafting of the court's judgments in a bunch of hot-button issues."

Stevens wrote most of the court's decisions that struck the previous administration's policies on the rights of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But he was willing to give up the opinion-writing in other major cases -- to O'Connor on affirmative action, to Kennedy on gay rights -- to preserve a majority.

"The institution means a great deal to him -- I'd say more to him than his own personal legacy," Gerhardt said. But lately, the victories have been fewer. "The institution is not going in the direction he thinks it should," he said.

That was clear this year when he was on the losing side in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which changed the rules on the role that corporations and special interests can play in elections. Stevens delivered a stinging 90-page dissent, saying that his conservative colleagues in the majority had an "agenda" and that they ignored "the overwhelming majority of justices who have served on this court."

Stevens read part of the dissent -- in an uncharacteristically shaky voice -- from the bench, and some viewed it as something of a valedictory, or at least a confirmation that he was leaving.

The justice said too much is being read into his frustration.

"I'm always disappointed when people don't agree with me, but those rulings don't figure into my decision on whether to call it quits," Stevens said. "My colleagues are wonderful people. I miss Justice [David H.] Souter, but he has a wonderful replacement" in Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Obama, of course, nominated Sotomayor, and the White House has begun preparing to choose Stevens's successor. He said the president, who has taught constitutional law, is uniquely qualified for the role.

Obama is a "very competent president" to make choices for the Supreme Court, Stevens said. Perhaps the best, he added, "since Gerald Ford."

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