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Oldest justice marks a date

Stevens fetes his 30 years on high court today

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens may appear a bit old-fashioned. He plays in bridge tournaments, is a fan of Perry Mason, and considers Babe Ruth one of his heroes.

He wears bow ties, won a Bronze Star in World War II, and enjoys reading biographies.

The high court's senior member also feels comfortable in front of a computer and is known to be a feisty opponent on the tennis court.

For Stevens, who turns 86 in April, today marks his 30th anniversary on the court.

There is no indication that Stevens, appointed by President Ford, appears ready to retire.

He sends e-mails, plays golf and tennis, and his clout shows in recent rulings on capital punishment, land takings, and gay rights. Once nicknamed ''maverick" for his many dissents, Stevens in recent years has become an effective coalition builder.

''The guy is ageless. There's been no slowdown," said Eduardo Penalver, a Fordham Law School professor and former Stevens clerk. ''I think he's coming into his own right now."

It is unclear how Stevens will shape a court that is in flux. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist died in September at age 80; the next oldest justice, 75-year-old Sandra Day O'Connor, is retiring.

To succeed O'Connor, President Bush has picked Samuel A. Alito Jr. Like Alito, Stevens was a 55-year-old appeals court judge when Ford nominated him to the court in early December 1975.

It took the Senate just 2 1/2 weeks to unanimously confirm Stevens, who at the time was described as a moderate conservative. Recent confirmations have lasted much longer.

Stevens had a more prominent role at the court over the past year while Rehnquist was fighting cancer and absent from the bench for five months. Stevens presided over arguments and the court's biggest decisions had his touch.

In June, for example, Stevens wrote a 5-4 decision that gave local governments broader power to seize private property to generate tax revenue.

Stevens was influential in a 5-4 decision in March that outlawed the death penalty for juvenile criminals. Three years ago, Stevens had written: ''The practice of executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society. We should put an end to this shameful practice."

Stevens does not grant interviews to reporters. But he has been very forthright in his public speeches.

This past summer he gave a blistering criticism of the capital punishment system. DNA evidence has shown ''that a substantial number of death sentences have been imposed erroneously," he said. ''It indicates that there must be serious flaws in our administration of criminal justice."

Also over the summer, he told an audience that he personally supported medical marijuana laws although his ruling in June said people who smoke the drug because their doctors recommend it to ease pain can be prosecuted for violating federal drug laws.

Stevens is one of the clearest writers among the justices.

In the Bush v. Gore decision, which effectively settled the 2000 presidential election, Stevens wrote: ''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 law."

Stevens replaced liberal Justice William O. Douglas, who was in failing health. Ford also considered naming conservative Robert Bork. Almost from the beginning of his service, Stevens showed a liberal streak and penchant for dissents.

''I don't think there ever was any conservative there," said Lino Graglia, a conservative who is a University of Texas law professor. ''Stevens seems to enjoy taking eccentric positions. There is a maverick quality about him."

Stevens is known for being a bit quirky. He favors the pronoun ''she" instead of ''he" when writing generally about a person.

He is the father of three daughters. A son, who served in Vietnam, died after battling cancer.

Stevens, who remarried after a 1979 divorce, splits his time between suburban Virginia and Florida.

On the issues, he supports Roe v. Wade, has concerns about the death penalty, and wants a strong separation between church and state. Of all the justices, he is perhaps the least recognizable, although he had a high-profile role in the swearing in of Roberts to be chief justice. They walked down the steps of the Supreme Court together and posed for photographs, a court tradition. Roberts, 50, held Stevens's arm.

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