The United States Supreme court is the highest court in the nation; it covers all cases and controversies that arise under the Constitution, or the laws of the United States. With that said, it is obvious justices of the Supreme Court have considerable influence over what goes on politically and socially in the U.S. From 1910-1937 Willis Van Devanter served as a justice on the Supreme Court, and had such influence. As a conservative, and with the help of his colleagues, he arguably slowed down economic progress, preventing the United States from coming out of the Great Depression. However, before we analyze his tenure on the court, one needs too study his past, so we can understand his ideology, and examine his opinions written on the bench.
Willis Van Devanter was born in April 17, 1859, in Marion, Indiana and was the first of eight children (Urofsky, 562). He excelled in academics, graduating in 1878 from Indiana Asbury University (now DePauw University) with a near perfect record in history, math, Latin, and Greek (Urofsky, 563). He then earned a bachelor of law degree from Cincinnati Law School and established a law practice in Indiana. He soon moved to Wyoming, where he helped amend the state’s statutes, and was a prominent attorney, representing the Union Pacific and Burlington railroads (Batten, 207). In addition, he represented Wyoming stock growers, and most of the powerful and sizable ranches in the state. His biggest success as an attorney came in the Johnson County case, in which he defended invaders for being accused of murdering cattle rustlers (Johnson 407. Another of Devanter’s most recognizable cases as an attorney is, Ward v. Race Horse, where he argued in front of the Supreme Court that Wyoming’s statehood prevented Indian families from hunting on their lands (U.S, 508). In 1888 he moved on to be a representative at the territorial legislature and chaired the Judiciary Committee (Urofsky, 552).
For the next 20 years, Van Devanter’s attention was divided amongst, the judiciary and republican party politics. He presided as chief justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court from 1889 to 1890, he was an assistant U.S. attorney general to the interior department, and at the same time he served as a delegate to the Republican National Committee (Batten, 208). Paul Holsinger states in his book that, as Assistant Attorney General, Van Devanter was responsible for the ruling on all cases involving federal land (327). For example, cases growing out of General Land Office rulings, Homestead Act decisions, and disputes over Indian lands found their way to his desk for judgment (Holsinger, 327). Moreover, he taught law at Columbian University (now George Washington University). In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals (Holsinger, 328). This appointment, alongside being Assistant Attorney General, made him a master in key legal areas such as land claims, water rights, and jurisdictional issues, which gave him an insurmountable influence amongst the Supreme Court Justices. In 1910, as a result of Senator Francis E. Warren’s extensive amount of promoting and advocating, President William Howard Taft nominated Van Devanter to the US Supreme Court (Holsinger, 331).
Willis Van Devanter served during several crucial times through his tenure in the Supreme Court: World War 1, post war economic boom, also known as the Roaring 20’s, and the Great Depression. The first of 3 chief justices Van Devanter shared the bench with was Edward White. White’s court lasted from 1911-1921; Van Devanter had three important majority opinions in his first 10 years as a Supreme Court justice. The first was Second Employers’ Liability Case, in which Devanter states the purpose of the statute was to prevent negligence on the part of the railroad, by imposing greater liability (Urofsky 563). Devanter helped the working man in this case, providing them with the Workers Comp they deserve once injured during interstate commerce. His second opinion was United States v. Sandoval case. It discussed the prohibition against bringing alcoholic beverages into an Indian community (U.S. 231) In a unanimous decision, Van Devanter stated in his opinion that, generally applicable federal Indian statutes apply to the Pueblo. The most famous case during this time however, was Standard Oil of NJ v. United States. The Supreme Court ruled that Standard Oil Company, along with 33 other corporations, violated the Anti-Trust Act by conspiring in monopolizing crude oil (U.S., 221). As stated on Oyez the court, “managed to amend the language of the Sherman Act such that only unreasonable contracts and combinations in restraint of trade would violate the law”(U.S., 221)
After White’s Court, Van Devanter’s tenure from 1921-1929 was served with chief justice William Howard Taft. In the presidential election of 1920, the Republican party’s nominee Warren G. Harding’s record of seven-million-votes gave him the presidency (Galloway, 3). This gave Taft the opportunity he wanted, which was to be part of the U.S. Supreme Court. After Harding’s inauguration, four Supreme Court vacancies opened. Harding filled the seats with conservatives, as mentioned Howard Taft was nominated (Galloway Jr, 3). The others were George Sutherland, and railroad attorney Pierce Butler (Galloway Jr, 3). After the progressive tide decreased in 1916, a conservative mood surfaced from WW1. Galloway in his law review says the characteristics the “immediate post-war period brought, were anti-subversive witch-hunting, racial persecution, America-first isolationism, prohibition, economic conservatism, and strong anti-labor sentiment” (3). Galloway added the temperament at that time was well-suited for Taft’s court.
However, the start of Taft’s court was relatively harmonious, there were not many dissents for the first half of the decade, it was moderately consistent to the right through 1925 (Galloway Jr, 24). On October of 1924, the landmark case Gitlow v. New York appeared on the justice’s desks. Benjamin Gitlow, a reporter from the Revolutionary Age Newspaper was charged under the Criminal Anarchy Law, for publishing a socialist essay in post- Bolshevik Revolution Era (U.S. 268). The essay was titled “Left Wing Manifesto”(U.S. 268). The United States at the time was particularly concerned over the rise of international socialism and communism (U.S. 268). As the term transitioned through 1925 a controversial case elevated to the Supreme Court. Adkins v. Children Hospital, where Van Devanter voted with the 5-4 majority that consisted of Sutherland, McKenna, McReynolds, and Butler (U.S. 261) One can see the ideological connections Van Devanter had with Sutherland, McReynolds, and Butler since then. The court in Adkins v. Children Hospital held that it was an unconstitutional violation of due process for a law to mandate a minimum wage for working women (U.S., 261). Changing attitudes to working women grew from this decision, which reveals an understanding that women have the same ability as men to enter into contracts (U.S. 261). The harm to businesses caused by imposing a minimum wage, appeared to be the key factor in this case, although according to Justia, a more modern court would not have agreed (U.S. 261). On the term of 1926, Taft’s honeymoon ended with the average dissent-rate sky rocketing, more so from liberal justices (Galloway Jr, 24). The Four Horseman which consisted of Van Devanter, and the men previously mentioned, Sutherland, McReynolds and Butler, created a conservative bloc, that maintained the Supreme Court rulings mostly conservative through Van Devanter’s remaining time on the court (Galloway Jr, 34). In the final term of Taft’s Court, the stock market crashed, and the nation fell into the Great Depression. Taft disabled by illness, resigned February 3, 1930 (Galloway Jr, 34).
Interesting developments emerged towards the start of the 1930’s. Given the 4-3 bloc alignment was in place after the retirement of Taft and Sanford; Hughes’s first term as attorney general, and Roberts confirmation to the Supreme Court, meant they could control the outcome of divided cases (Galloway Jr, 66). Moreover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s landslide victory over president Hoover signaled the beginning of a liberal era. Yet the Four Horsemen for the most part stayed true to their ideologies, aligning once again with their conservative blocs. Thus, began the court’s famous battle against the New Deal (Golloway Jr, 66). There were plenty of cases finding their way to the Supreme, but between 1930-1936 Hughes’s court was mostly famous for its economic conservatism. The Four Horsemen were able to maintain its power and influence on the court by voting cohesively, more so Van Devanter, Butler, and Sutherland (Galloway Jr, 66). One of many examples of the Four Horsemen stopping economic change, is the famous Carter v. Carter Coal Company case. In a 5 to 4 decision, the court held that the Coal Conservation Act of 1935, also known as the Guffey Act, overstepped the bounds of congressional power (U.S., 298). Or commerce is the equivalent of intercourse for the purposes of trade (U.S., 298).
There is lots of critics who attack Willis Van Devanter’s service on the court (Johnson, 409). In a job where productivity is pretty much measured by written opinions, he produced very little (Johnson, 405). Van Devanter was by far the least prolific writer amongst the distinguished justices in his time. He only wrote a total of 346 majority opinions in his twenty-seven-year tenure on the court (Johnson, 405). One of his most notable opinions was during Chief Justice White’s court, New York Central Railroad Co. v. Winfield 1917. A man working in an interstate commerce for New York Central Railroad gets injured while on the job (U.S., 244) The man then gets his Workers Comp, the injury was severe (U.S., 244). Turns out the employee believes the worker should not get workers comp because of the Employers Liability Act. The case makes it to the Supreme Court, and Van Devanter is assigned the majority opinion. (U.S., 244) He states that if you do get hurt during interstate commerce, however not because of being negligent, an employee cannot uphold an award under the New York’s Workmen’s Compensation Act (U.S., 244). Or in better terms, federal law preempts state law when both laws cover the same field (U.S., 244). It’s arguable that for this case Willis Van Devanter voted a bit liberal, considering he leaves interstate commerce-Workers Comp to the federal govt. However, I would say that because he is interpreting the constitution, it classifies the case as a constitutional decision. Nobody abides more to the constitution than conservatives. In addition, considering the court stayed conservative for the next 20 years, one can also argue this case’s decision had a positive response to the public, shifting their opinion, to the court’s.
Van Devanter’s next opinion I will discuss is McGrain v. Daugherty 1927 case. This court case is interesting to me because unlike New York Central Railroad v. Winfield, this case’s decision was statutory. The opinion of Devanter was his interpretation of the law (U.S.,273) Along with the case’s ideology being liberal, I was intrigued by Taft’s decision choosing Van Devanter to write the opinion of this case (U.S.,273). The Supreme Court upheld Daugherty’s contempt conviction, giving congress a broad presumptive power to invoke anyone, if the means is to obtain legislation or find wrongdoing (U.S.,273). This gives the government or congress boat loads of power, and the decision, unlike NYCR v. Winfield, sounds more ideologically liberal. Makes me wonder if Devanter was the right guy for this opinion.
Willis Van Devanter came to be known as one of the nine old men on the court who resisted progress in a reactionary fashion. These critiques came from Franklin Roosevelt and his followers during what is known as the Constitutional Revolution. According to Wallace Johnson, the period when Van Devanter served on the Supreme Court, has been referred to as the “golden era” of the court (404). Distinguished justices like Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, and the president who appointed him, Howard Taft, all served with him on the bench (Johnson, 404). Although the picture presented of Van Devanter is of a person who resisted progress. I picture him more as the philosophical leader of the Four Horsemen. One of Devanter’s critics, Drew Pearson, mentions, “no matter what Van Devanter’s views may be, no matter how radically they may differ from those of other justices, whatever he says commands their respect and attention.”. Van Devanter’s upbringings and tenure in the court were unique, from his long-time friend, Warren, working non-stop to get him a Supreme Court nomination. To having written the least amount of opinions amongst his colleagues, yet impact a generation.
Adkins v. Children’s Hosp., 261 U.S. 525 (1923)
Carter v. Carter Coal Co., 298 U.S. 238 (1936)
Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925)
McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135 (1927)
M. Paul Holsinger; The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Oct., 1968), pp. 324- 335
New York Central Railroad Company v. Winfield (1917)
Russell W. Galloway Jr., The Taft Court (1921-29), 25 Santa Clara L. Rev. 1 (1985).
Russell W. Galloway Jr., The Court That Challenged the New Deal (1930-1936), 24 Santa Clara L. Rev. 65 (1984).
Second Employers’ Liability Cases, 223 U.S. 1 (1912)
United States v. Sandoval, 231 U.S. 28 (1913
Van Devanter, Willis.” Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court: The Lives and Legal Philosphies of the Justices, edited by Melvin I. Urofsky, CQ Press, 2006, pp. 562-565. Gale Virtual Reference Library, galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX2141900107/GVRL?u=txshracd2603&sid=GVRL&xid=2ce2d161. Accessed 5 Dec. 2017.
Wallace H. Johnson,Willis Van Devanter – A Re-Examination, 1 Wyo. L. Rev. 403 (2001).