Stevens retired from the high court in 2010 after serving on the bench for almost 35 years. He was the third-longest-serving justice of the Supreme Court.
He died in a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after a stroke.
“I couldn’t have known Justice John Paul Stevens for all of his 99 years, but I’m lucky enough to have known him for some of them,” Obama, who was president when Stevens retired, said in a statement. “He was a good man, a decent man. And our country is better because of his leadership and his example.”
“For more than 34 years on the bench at the Supreme Court, Justice Stevens heard cases with a level of grace, humility, and fidelity to our highest ideals that we should hope all our public servants strive for,” Obama said. “His balancing of legal precedent with the Constitution’s call for equal justice and an understanding of Americans’ daily lives helped the court — and the country — navigate controversial and defining questions of who we are and who we can be. And in doing so with his signature pragmatism and modesty, he played a pivotal role in carrying forward our founding promise into today.”
Republican President Gerald Ford nominated Stevens, also a Republican, to the Supreme Court in 1975. Although he told The New York Times Magazine in 2007 that he thought of himself as “pretty darn conservative,” Stevens is often considered a liberal champion of the court.
The justice wrote majority opinions on a wide range of issues, including abortion rights, capital punishment, school prayer and campaign-finance reform.
Stevens led the high court’s efforts to uphold legal protections for Guantanamo Bay prisoners after President George W. Bush’s administration argued after the 9/11 attacks that prisoners there were not entitled to access to U.S. courts because they were not U.S. citizens and were being held on American soil.
In retirement, Stevens remained an outspoken critic of the U.S. policy of detaining enemy combatants in Guantanamo without charges.
In May 2012, Obama awarded Stevens a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for his decadeslong career upholding the Constitution and the laws of the United States.
“Known for his independent, pragmatic and rigorous approach to judging, Justice Stevens and his work have left a lasting imprint on the law in areas such as civil rights, the First Amendment, the death penalty, administrative law, and the separation of powers,” the White House said at the time.
Marina Fang contributed to this report.