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The Nine Greatest Supreme Court Justices

by Enochadmin

Of the 115 justices who’ve served on the Supreme Courtroom, solely a choose few managed to see a authorized horizon far past the view of their contemporaries.

Supreme Courtroom Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was touring by prepare to Washington, D.C., one morning practically a century in the past when a conductor requested for his ticket. Holmes searched excessive and low for it till the conductor reassured him, “Don’t fear about your ticket, Mr. Holmes. Everyone knows who you might be. Whenever you get to your vacation spot, you will discover it and simply mail it to us.”

“My expensive man, the issue just isn’t my ticket,” quipped Holmes, who was famend for his fast wit. “The issue is…the place am I going?”

We face the same guessing recreation as a nation each time a brand new Supreme Courtroom justice is chosen. The president and different officers concerned within the choice course of can solely speculate what route a brand new appointee will observe throughout a lifetime tenure on the Courtroom, a lot much less what lasting influence she or he may need on interpretation of our legal guidelines. And predicting whether or not any justice will obtain a measure of greatness is a crapshoot.

Sonia Sotomayor is not any exception. When President Barack Obama put her up for Senate affirmation this summer season, he touted her “empathy” and potential for blazing a brand new historic path as the primary Latina justice. She has been broadly in comparison with Thurgood Marshall, the primary African-American justice, and Sandra Day O’Connor, the primary feminine justice, each of whom made historical past by breaking racial and gender boundaries. However neither Marshall nor O’Connor are typically seen as mental leaders on the Courtroom. Marshall introduced a deep sense of social justice to the Courtroom’s deliberations, however he was not equally recognized for his contribution to authorized principle and doctrine—not less than, not more than the overwhelming majority of his predecessors or successors. O’Connor just about functioned as a courtroom of 1—the constant swing vote on a Courtroom rigidly divided in lots of areas by a 4-4 cut up—however won’t be remembered for the depth or consistency of her opinions. Despite the fact that she usually dictated the end result of circumstances, she did so with insular and generally conflicting rationales.

Essentially the most notable pattern in latest a long time has been for presidents to place ahead nominees who’ve empty recordsdata: spectacular educational and judicial résumés mixed with a sparse historical past of controversial speeches or writings that could be turned in opposition to them throughout the affirmation course of. Such for­mulaic alternatives replicate the vagaries of our political system, but in addition our discomfort with people who find themselves artistic thinkers and might’t be simply pigeonholed as both judicial activists or strict constructionists. Despite the fact that America has the deepest pool of legal professionals on this planet, if genius is discovered on the trendy Courtroom it’s largely unintended.

There is no such thing as a normal profile for the number of nice justices. Nevertheless, shut examination of the data of the 111 justices who’ve served on the Courtroom reveals {that a} choose few managed to see a authorized horizon far past the view of their contemporaries, usually espousing views that may not replicate majoritarian values for many years. The 9 justices featured on the pages that observe all exhibited a capability to rise above standard considering and prejudices and epitomize what constitutes the precise stuff on the Supreme Courtroom.


Three Sport Changers
One of many major measures of greatness on the Supreme Courtroom is the influence a justice’s selections have on the society at giant. John Marshall, Charles Evan Hughes and Earl Warren all sat on the bench throughout transformative intervals in American historical past and the social and political penalties of their selections reverberated for generations.

John Marshall
Chief Justice 1801 to 1835

Marshall authored crucial American judicial opinion of all time: Marbury v. Madison (1803), which established the supremacy of the Courtroom in authorized judgments. He additionally issued a sequence of selections involving the steadiness of energy between the federal authorities and the states that laid the authorized basis for the younger republic. “A hush falls upon us even now as we hearken to his phrases,” Justice Benjamin Cardozo wrote greater than two centuries later.

Regardless of such reward, Marshall has an apparent benefit. His selections on judicial evaluation, Indian tribes and different basic points mirrored the truth that these had been the primary defining circumstances. One has to acknowledge that anybody writing these early selections would have had the identical basic influence. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a titan of the early Twentieth-century Courtroom, alluded to the significance of timing when he wryly famous that a lot of Marshall’s “greatness consists of his being there.”

Marshall was not notably profound or mental in his opinions, which regularly learn extra like commandments than interpretations on the regulation. He used Marbury to stake out precious territory for the Courtroom, a chance that paid off regardless of preliminary protests that he was amending the Structure by the ruling—the earliest allegation of judicial activism. But the choice achieved a significant balancing of the judicial, legislative and government branches of presidency that assured the peaceable decision of numerous conflicts.

Marshall was extra within the outcomes than the analytical underpinnings of his judicial opinions, however he’s chargeable for the institutional standing and authority of the Courtroom itself—giving him a Moses-like stature that’s unmatched by his successors.

Charles Evans Hughes

Affiliate Justice 1910 to 1916

Chief Justice 1930 to 1941

Like Marshall, Hughes was not famend for his eloquence or mind. However he used his political expertise to maneuver the Courtroom by swirling waters of social change. Hughes was the Republican governor of New York earlier than starting a six-year stint as an affiliate justice in 1910. Then, after resigning from the Courtroom to mount an unsuccessful marketing campaign for president and spending a number of years in non-public apply as a lawyer, he served as secretary of state beneath Warren Harding from 1921 to 1925. He returned to the Supreme Courtroom 5 years later when Herbert Hoover appointed him chief justice.

In the course of the Nice Melancholy, Hughes incurred the wrath of Franklin D. Roosevelt because the chief of a Courtroom that declared a number of New Deal measures unconstitutional. Most notably, in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (1935), Hughes dominated that agreements between Roosevelt’s Nationwide Restoration Administration and personal trade relating to work hours, pay charges and value fixing had been invalid as a result of they delegated legislative energy to the manager department. After Roosevelt was re-elected by a landslide in 1936, he initiated judicial reorganization laws that may have granted him the facility to neutralize the Courtroom’s opposition to his plans by including extra justices. Roosevelt’s court-packing laws in the end failed in Congress. However within the interim Hughes helped keep away from a cataclysmic showdown between the Courtroom and the president by quiet diplomacy and by working intently with Louis Brandeis, Harlan Fiske Stone and Benjamin Cardozo in selections supporting New Deal laws he believed didn’t threaten the foundations of constitutional regulation.

Earl Warren

Chief Justice 1953 to 1969

Earlier than becoming a member of the Supreme Courtroom, Warren was a consummate politician: a longtime governor of California who proved so widespread in his first time period that he received the nominations of each the Republican and Democratic events when he ran for re-election. In 1952 he stood as a favorite-son candidate of California for the Republican nomination for president, however withdrew in help of Dwight Eisenhower, who appointed him chief justice a 12 months later. Eisenhower proclaimed that the Courtroom wanted a justice with conservative financial and social values very similar to his personal. As a substitute, Warren took the Courtroom boldly into the Twentieth century with transformative liberal rulings in areas starting from desegregation to free speech to prison process.

The Warren Courtroom issued one landmark determination after one other, and Warren wrote the bulk opinion in a few of the most well-known circumstances: Brown v. Board of Schooling (1954) banned segregation in public colleges; Miranda v. Arizona (1966) required that prison defendants learn of their rights to stay silent and to be represented by a lawyer; Loving v. Virginia (1967) struck down prohibitions on interracial marriage. Liberals typically hailed the Warren Courtroom’s selections whereas conservatives cried foul. However, Warren was capable of finding grounds for unanimity amongst his colleagues in controversial circumstances like Brown and put all the weight and credibility of the Courtroom behind opinions that introduced nice social change.


Three Unyielding Contrarians
A handful of justices had a profound influence on the evolution of authorized principle by bravely bucking in opposition to prevailing tendencies. Louis Brandeis, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and William Brennan had been impartial thinkers who stayed the course even when their opinions had been scorned by the bulk.

Louis Brandeis, Library of Congress

Louis Brandeis

Affiliate Justice 1916 to 1939

As the primary Jew named to the Courtroom and an unabashed advocate of social justice who had earned the nickname the “Folks’s Lawyer,” Brandeis confronted a bitter affirmation combat. “He was harmful not simply due to his brilliance, his arithmetic, his braveness,” his fellow justice William O. Douglas later wrote. “He was harmful as a result of he was incorruptible.” Certainly, it was Brandeis’ willingness to suppose past the established order that made him such a prescient determine on the Courtroom. His dissenting opinions, notably in circumstances involving freedom of speech and the precise to privateness, would later change into the bulk positions of the Courtroom. In Olmstead v. United States (1928), he bristled on the willingness of his colleagues to endorse the federal government’s use of wiretap know-how to collect proof and argued passionately for a person’s “proper to be not to mention.” His dissent continues to be one of the vital quoted opinions within the Courtroom’s historical past. “Males born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers,” he wrote. “The best risks to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by males of zeal, well-meaning however with out understanding.”

William Brennan

Affiliate Justice 1956 to 1990

Brennan turned out to be a Supreme shock after President Dwight Eisenhower named him to the Courtroom in 1956. Brennan’s document as a justice on the New Jersey Supreme Courtroom and public feedback he had made about prison regulation prompt he would observe a conservative course, however he turned out to be one of the vital liberal justices within the historical past of the Courtroom. He was revered by the left and reviled by the precise due to his outspoken opposition to the dying penalty and help for abortion rights. However his opinions on much less socially contentious points had an equal if not larger influence on the growth of constitutional principle and doctrines. New York Instances v. Sullivan (1964) established the constitutional normal for defamation of public officers. Baker v. Carr (1962) enabled federal courts to guard particular person voting rights by intervening within the reapportionment of electoral districts. Malloy v. Hogan (1964) prolonged a defendant’s Fifth Modification proper in opposition to self-incrimination to state courts. Chief Justice Earl Warren usually assigned rulings to Brennan that required a complete and profound therapy, main Courtroom watchers to dub him the “Deputy Chief.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Affiliate Justice 1902 to 1932

Holmes first exhibited his fearless instincts for diving headlong into the fray throughout the Civil Struggle, struggling wounds as a primary lieutenant with the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on the battles of Ball’s Bluff, Antietam and Fredericksburg. After the struggle, Holmes established himself as one among America’s preeminent authorized theorists along with his 1881 e book, The Widespread Legislation, and was a Harvard regulation college professor earlier than serving for 20 years as a justice of the Supreme Judicial Courtroom of Massachusetts. When President Theodore Roosevelt put his identify ahead as a Supreme Courtroom justice in 1902, it was one of many uncommon events {that a} sensible authorized scholar has been nominated with little regard for partisan politics. Holmes proved to be an impartial spirit throughout his 30 years on the Courtroom, taking a contrarian place in so many selections that he was dubbed the “Nice Dissenter.” However the pithiness of each his minority and majority opinions on points as various as copyright, due course of and antitrust laws resulted in him turning into one of the vital broadly cited Supreme Courtroom justices ever. He’s notably well-known for his articulation of the “clear and current hazard” exception to the precise of free speech in a unanimous ruling by the Courtroom in Schenck v. United States (1919), through which he famously declared that First Modification protections don’t apply to a person “falsely shouting fireplace in a crowded theater and inflicting a panic.” Nevertheless, in his dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919), Holmes objected to using the clear-and-present-danger take a look at to punish individuals solely on the content material of their speech.


Three Towering Visionaries
All the nice Supreme Courtroom justices had been visionaries. However John Marshall Harlan, Hugo Black and Joseph Story possessed extraordinary insights that allowed them to transcend their instances and articulate a far-reaching view of our legal guidelines.

John Marshall Harlan

Affiliate Justice 1877 to 1911

Harlan was born right into a slaveholding household in Kentucky, and as a Union Military colonel throughout the Civil Struggle swore that he would resign if President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. However he later broke with household custom and have become an outspoken critic of slavery, which he described as “essentially the most excellent despotism that ever existed on this earth.” Harlan was the primary justice to have earned a contemporary regulation diploma and, after becoming a member of the Courtroom in 1877, he supplemented his revenue by educating night courses at George Washington regulation college. Harlan grew to become an eloquent defender of equal rights, and was the only dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the notorious case through which the Courtroom affirmed the constitutionality of racially segregated public amenities that had been “separate however equal.” In his dissent in Hurtado v. California (1884), Harlan was the primary justice to argue that the 14th Modification to the Structure, which prolonged rights of citizenship to blacks after the Civil Struggle, additionally prohibited states from setting up legal guidelines that infringe on protections accorded people beneath the Invoice of Rights. Likewise, within the Insular Instances (1901), Harlan insisted that residents of latest U.S. territories within the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam ought to be entitled to the identical rights as all Americans. Whereas serving one of many longest tenures of any justice, Harlan was continuously within the minority, however he articulated a brand new mind-set about core problems with the Structure that was a long time forward of his time.

Hugo Black

Affiliate Justice 1937 to 1971

Black’s early profession as an area prosecutor, police courtroom choose and Democratic senator from Alabama was blemished by his membership within the Ku Klux Klan. “I might have joined any group if it helped get me votes,” he admitted years later. However over the course of his 34-year tenure on the Courtroom, he articulated a extremely principled view of the Structure. Black believed in limiting the interpretation of the Structure to its “plain that means.” When the bulk invalidated a regulation that prohibited using contraceptives in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) on the grounds that it violated a person’s proper to privateness, Black argued in his dissent that it was not “the responsibility of this Courtroom to maintain the Structure in tune with the instances.” That very same insistence on strict textual evaluation of the Structure made him maybe the Courtroom’s most passionate defender of the rights of free speech and affiliation. In his dissent in Dennis v. United States (1966), a case through which the bulk upheld the conspiracy conviction of a Communist Occasion chief, he wrote, “Public opinion being what it now’s, few will protest the conviction of those Communist petitioners. There may be hope, nonetheless, that, in calmer instances, when current pressures, passions and fears subside, this or some later Courtroom will restore the First Modification liberties to the excessive most well-liked place the place they belong in a free society.” He additionally wrote the landmark determination in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), which established that states should present an lawyer to an indigent defendant. Black defied simple categorization as both a conservative or a liberal, however he introduced a profound readability to his constitutional interpretation of circumstances that proceed to have a dramatic influence on each regulation and American politics.

Joseph Story, Library of Congress

Joseph Story

Affiliate Justice 1812 to 1845

Story was solely 32 years outdated when he joined the Supreme Courtroom and was overshadowed by John Marshall throughout most of his tenure on the bench, however he in the end had a larger influence on the regulation, society and authorized principle than some other justice in historical past. Despite the fact that Marshall assigned just about all the main early Supreme Courtroom opinions to himself, Story was the mental anchor who gave lasting that means to the choices. After declaring the end result of 1 case Marshall turned to him and stated, “Now, Story, that’s the regulation; you discover the precedents for it.” When he was allowed to jot down, Story proved that he was the higher of Marshall as a authorized thoughts. In Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee (1816) he established the Courtroom’s authority over state selections pertaining to federal regulation. His determination in Financial institution of the United States v. Dandridge (1827) led to the creation of the trendy company as a authorized entity and different seminal opinions laid the foundations for admiralty regulation, fairness regulation and patent regulation. In United States v. Amistad (1841), which was the idea of a 1997 Steven Spielberg movie starring retired Supreme Courtroom Justice Harry Blackmun as Story, he bolstered the abolitionist motion by ruling that the transport of a bunch of Africans throughout the Atlantic was unlawful and the slaves ought to be freed.

Story clearly noticed the regulation as an evolving physique of doctrines that linked at deep widespread roots, and the affect of his considering unfold when he grew to become the primary Dane Professor of Legislation at Harvard College and penned his three-volume Commentaries on the Structure (1833) whereas nonetheless serving on the Courtroom. He additionally was one of many earliest voices calling for society to finish slavery and to coach girls. Whereas the turgid model of the time makes Story’s opinions much less highly effective to learn than a few of his successors, he confirmed the identical quiet ardour of his father, Elisha, one of many organizers of the Boston Tea Occasion. Above all, Story adopted a extra fashionable view of a jurist in avoiding political entanglements and public acclaim. “Republics are created by the advantage, public spirit, and intelligence of the residents,” he wrote. “They fall, when the sensible are banished from the general public councils, as a result of they dare to be trustworthy, and the profligate are rewarded, as a result of they flatter the individuals, in an effort to betray them.”

Jonathan Turley is a George Washington College regulation professor who has written extensively on authorized and coverage points for numerous nationwide publications and appeared as a commentator on all the main networks.

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