The body of retired justice John Paul Stevens, who died last week at age 99, returned Monday to the Great Hall of the Supreme Court, where he served for 35 terms.
President Trump, first lady Melania Trump and a long line of former clerks and members of the public paid their respects to the man Justice Elena Kagan called a hero.
“He was a brilliant man with extraordinary legal gifts and talents, which he combined with a deep devotion to the rule of law and a deep commitment to equal justice,” Kagan said during a brief and somber ceremony.
Kagan, who was nominated by President Barack Obama to replace Stevens after his 2010 retirement, added: “Maybe more personally and more directly than anyone, I’ve thought about the enormity of Justice Stevens’s shoes and the impossibility of filling them.”
Stevens, a leader of the court’s liberal wing, died July 16 after having a stroke the day before at his home in Florida.
His casket arrived at the court just before 9:30 a.m., and dozens of his former clerks were lined up on the building’s grand steps.
Inside, Kagan was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Sonia Sotomayor.
Retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was there, and retired Justice David Souter will come for Tuesday’s private funeral. The court has scattered for the summer, and Justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen G. Breyer, Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh were unable to attend. Ashley Kavanaugh stood in her husband’s place.
Supreme Court police officers served as pallbearers, placing the casket on the Lincoln Catafalque, which Congress has lent for the ceremony. A 1991 portrait of Stevens by James Ingwersen was on display in the Great Hall.
The court’s last ceremony honoring a deceased colleague was in 2016, after the unexpected death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
Stevens will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday.
The president and first lady signed a visitors book and were escorted to the Great Hall by Roberts. The Trumps held hands and stood silently by the flag-draped casket for about a minute, then walked to look at the portrait.
At the ceremony, Kagan said that, when she pressed Stevens for advice as she took his place at the court, he told her that in a justice’s first year — and in the 35th — “there are opportunities to learn in this job.”
She said he left a body of work marked by a “judicial wisdom unsurpassed by any modern justice.”
She earned laughter when she addressed his clerks: “Let’s be frank, Justice Stevens, more than most justices, did not need law clerks.” The most common remarks from them, Kagan said, was that they had never had a better boss, and besides learning the law, “you learned how to lead a good and honorable life.”
One of those clerks, University of Georgia law professor Sonja West, remembered that Stevens used to joke about his trademark bow ties: With one on, he was Superman. Take it off, he was Clark Kent.
West walked behind his casket as it was carried into the Supreme Court.
“I was struck by how emotional it was to walk with him for this final time into the court,” she said.
Outside, lawyer Marcia Sowles, 68, was second in line.
She argued before Stevens when he was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.
“I think he was a person that didn’t like labels,” Sowles, from Indiana, said. “Someone you could admire.”
She wanted to emphasize his kindness, “respect for people on all sides, listening to people on all sides.”
Others made similar comments.
Mari Burdge, 24, was visiting with her family and boyfriend from Florida.
“It was sad in a way because, to me, from what I know about Justice Stevens, he seems to be someone of bipartisanship, he represents bipartisanship,” Burdge said. “It seems like that era is kind of passed.”
Stevens was a moderate Republican lawyer from the Midwest who was selected for the federal bench by President Richard M. Nixon and elevated to the Supreme Court by President Gerald R. Ford.
The only justices who served longer than he did were William O. Douglas, whom Stevens replaced in 1975, and Stephen J. Field, a nominee of President Abraham Lincoln who served for much of the late 19th century.
During his tenure, Stevens became a leader of the court’s left, and wrote the court’s opinions in landmark cases involving government regulation, the death penalty, criminal law, intellectual property and civil liberties. He wrote notable dissents to the court’s Bush v. Gore ruling in 2000, and to its decision saying the Second Amendment guaranteed a right to gun ownership unrelated to military service.
Stevens joined the Navy as an intelligence officer on Dec. 6, 1941 — the day before Pearl Harbor was attacked. He would later serve there during World War II and was awarded a Bronze Star for his work at as code breaker, studying Japanese communications to find patterns that helped identify or locate enemy forces.
Obama awarded Stevens the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
In retirement, Stevens wrote three books, including a memoir released in May, “The Making of a Justice.”