Thinking Citizen Blog — Who Were the Nine Greatest Supreme Court Justices Ever? Why? Who Cares? Who Should Know?
Thinking Citizen Blog — Saturday is the Justice Freedom, Law, and Values Day — the Nine Greatest Supreme Court Justices
Today’s Topic: Who Were the Nine Greatest Supreme Court Justices Ever? Why? Who Cares? Who Should Know?
This week, I came upon an article entitled “The Nine Greatest Supreme Court Justices.” I was intrigued. What were the selection criteria? Were they reasonable? Are there better ones? The short story is that the author, a professor at George Washington Law School, divided the nine into three categories: the Game Changers, The Unyielding Contrarians, and the Towering Visionaries. What categories would you pick? Whom would you rank highest in each? Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.
THE GAME CHANGERS — John Marshall (1801–1835), Charles Evans Hughes (1910–1916, 1930–1941), Earl Warren (1953–1969)
1. Before John Marshall (above), there was no such thing as “judicial review.” His decision in Marbury v Madison invented it. Jefferson until his dying day considered this invention a Frankenstein-like monster, an utter abomination. Abraham Lincoln, appalled by the Dred Scott decision, shared Jefferson’s opinion. What do you think?
2. Charles Evans Hughes, engineered the “switch in time that saved nine.” That is he saved the Supreme Court from Roosevelt’s Court-packing plan by abandoning his opposition to New Deal regulation in the West Coast v Parish case of 1937. Property rights, arguably the most sacred of civil liberties at the time of the founding, have never recovered. Parenthetically, Hughes also served as Governor or New York (1906–1910), as well as Secretary of State (1921–1925). Having been appointed by President Taft in 1910, he resigned as Associate Justice to run for President in 1916. In 1930 he was appointed Chief Justice by President Hoover.
3. To the dismay of President Eisenhower who appointed him, Earl Warren turned the Supreme Court into an engine of social transformation with his decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). This decision was followed by many more including: Miranda (1966), inaugurating a revolution in the rights of the criminal defendants, and Loving v Virginia (1967) ending prohibitions on interracial marriages.
THREE UNYIELDING CONTRARIANS — Louis Brandeis (1916 to 1939), William Brennan (1956 to 1990), Oliver Wendell Holmes (1902–1932)
1. Louis Brandeis (above), the first Jew named to the Supreme Court, was both a champion of social justice (known as the “People’s Lawyer”) and of the right to privacy (the idea that the “right to be let alone” is the most sacred of all rights). He was decades ahead of his time. William O. Douglas would right this of him: “He was dangerous not because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible.”
2. William Brennan was another Eisenhower appointee who turned a sharp left when he joined the Supreme Court. He was an adamant opponent of the death penalty and a strong supporter of abortion rights. Baker v Carr (1962) enabled federal courts to protect individual voting rights by intervening in the reapportionment of electoral districts.”
3. Oliver Wendell Holmes was known as the “Great Dissenter.” His most famous dissent was in Abrams (1919) in which he argued that the “clear and present danger test” which he had enunciated the year before in Shenck (1918) did not apply to the case of two “revolutionists” who had distributed leaflets opposing US intervention in the Russian Revolution.
THREE TOWERING VISIONARIES: John Mashall Harlan (1877–1911), Hugo Black (1937–1971), Joseph Story (1812–1845)
1. John Marshall Harlan (above) was the sole dissenter in the “separate but equal” decision In Plessy v Ferguson (1896). He had grown up in a slaveholding family in Kentucky and had initially opposed the Emancipation Proclamation but his views evolved and he held fast to the principle of a color-blind constitution. In the Insular cases (1901) he “insisted that residents of new territories in the Philipines, Guam, and Puerto Rico were. entitled to the same rights as all American citizens.
2. Hugo Black is perhaps most famous for his dissent in Dennis (1951) a case involving the General Secretary of the US Communist Party. “There is hope, however, that in calmer times, when present pressures, passions and fears subside, this or some later Court will restore the First Amendment liberties to the high preferred place where they belong in our free society.” The Dennis decision was de facto reversed in Brandenburg v Ohio (1969).
3. The case for Joseph Story: “In Martin v Hunter’s Lessee” (1816) he established the Court’s authority over state decisions touching on federal law. His decision in US v Dandridge (1827) led to the creation of the modern corporation as a legal entity and other seminal opinions laid the foundation for admiralty law, equity law, and patent law. In United States v Amistad (1841) which was the basis of a 1997 Steven Spielberg film starring retired Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun as Story, he bolstered the abolitionist movement by ruling that the transport of a group of Africans across the Atlantic was illegal and the slaves should be freed…He was one of the earliest voices caling for society to end slavery and educate women…”
For the last four years of posts organized by theme:
Please share the coolest thing you learned in the last week related to justice, freedom, the law or basic values. Or the coolest, most important thing you learned in your life related to justice, freedom, the law, or basic values. Or just some random justice-related fact that blew you away.
This is your chance to make some one’s day. Or to cement in your mind something that you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply about something dear to your heart.