In the days following Justice John Paul Stevens’s death last year, numerous tributes and remembrances immediately poured forth. Former clerks, journalists, and legal scholars all grasped for the perfect words to capture the man and the justice we had just lost.

Yet many readers of these tributes and homages might have begun to wonder whether they were actually all talking about the same person. Because, taken together, the various portraits appeared to be full of contradictions. In one piece, for example, Justice Stevens is described as a frequent lone dissenter, while in another he is praised for his consensusbuilding leadership. For every tribute depicting him as a moderate around whom the Court shifted rightward, there seemed to be another painting him as a jurist who drifted leftward. He was a Republican yet also a liberal giant. He was deeply patriotic, while also a sharp critic of governmental institutions.

So who was the real Justice Stevens? How can we possibly be expected to understand his legacy if we can’t even agree on the basic characteristics he embodied? Which of these portraits is correct?