When the Court crudely intervened to anoint George W. Bush president in 2001, Stevens (a lifelong Republican) wrote, “Time will one day heal the wound to that confidence that will be inflicted by today’s decision. One thing, however, is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
He bitterly dissented in District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the Court held, 5–4, that the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms” protects an individual right to handgun ownership. Summarizing his opinion from the bench, he ridiculed the majority’s “rather grandiose” claim that it had found the “original understanding” of the amendment. “The principal draftsman of the amendment, James Madison—not men who wrote generations later and commentators and so [on], James Madison—and those who participated in the deliberations leading to the enactment of the amendment, considered and rejected proposals similar to those contained in some contemporary State Constitutions which the majority opinion quotes at length which would have protected non-military uses of weapons. Thus a fair analysis of the original intent of the framers of the amendment supports a narrower reading.”
Finally, on January 21, 2010, he read from the bench a dissent against Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which transformed American politics by opening the floodgates to mass expenditures by powerful corporations and political-action committees. The last World War II veteran on the Court, he critiqued the decision in terms that, for one of that generation, were deeply cutting. “The Court’s new rule,” he said, “would have accorded the propaganda broadcast to our troops by Tokyo Rose during World War II, the same threshold protection as a speech by General McArthur.” As Stevens read the Citizens United dissent, Court watchers noted an unusually hesitant quality in his usually fluent speech. In fact, he learned later, he had recently suffered a small stroke; as a result, he announced his retirement that April. President Barack Obama named then–Solicitor General Elena Kagan to succeed him. He left the bench a mere six months shy of Justice William O. Douglas’s record 36 years of service.
Stevens attracted many admirers and many critics, but—operating from a deep well of integrity and kindness—virtually no enemies. Retired from the Court for nearly a decade, he remained active, publishing three books and enjoying bridge, tennis, and Ping-Pong. In his writings and interviews, he did not hesitate to criticize a Court that, to him, seemed to have lost its way; last year, after the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Stevens said publicly that he found Kavanaugh unfit to serve.