Black, Hugo

views updated


Hugo Lafayette Black (February 27, 1886–September 25, 1971) was a U.S. Senator from 1926 to 1937 and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1937 to 1971. Raised in Alabama's hill country, Black handled personal injury suits and cases involving injuries to workers in his Birmingham law practice. He served briefly as a police court judge and county prosecutor. Black joined the Ku Klux Klan in 1923, resigning just before he began his 1926 campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate, which he won with support from many Klan members.

Black became one of the Senate's most prominent and vociferous defenders of the New Deal after his reelection in 1932. His principal legislative proposal sought the adoption of the thirty-hour work week, which many in Roosevelt's circle regarded as irresponsible and radical. The Senate approved Black's bill, but the administration's National Industrial Recovery Act superseded it. Black chaired two Senate committees to investigate what he regarded as corrupt ties between business and the government in awarding government contracts and in more general business lobbying. Black's methods, which included extensive searches of the personal files and papers of business leaders, were intrusive, provoking outrage among those he investigated. Civil libertarians, however, had little to say against Black's investigations. Black was one of the most ardent defenders of Roosevelt's court-packing plan.

Black's support of the New Deal made him an ideal nominee for the Supreme Court from President Roosevelt's point of view after the court-packing plan collapsed and Senate majority leader Joseph Robinson, Roosevelt's first choice for the Supreme Court, died unexpectedly. Black's performance in the Senate generated substantial opposition from the business community, but the Senate approved his nomination by a vote of sixty-three to sixteen. Newspaper reports of Black's Klan membership were published after the Senate had approved his appointment, and the revelation provoked a flurry of controversy, which died down soon after Black gave a radio speech confirming his former membership and pledging his fidelity to the Constitution.

Black became one of the intellectual leaders of the Roosevelt court. His guiding principle was that the Constitution should be interpreted in light of its words' plain meaning and its authors' understandings. Black sometimes had idiosyncratic views on what those original understandings were. Compatible with the New Deal's economic focus, Black believed that the Constitution's grant of power to regulate interstate commerce gave Congress essentially unlimited power to develop national economic policy. Reacting against Supreme Court decisions finding economic regulations unconstitutional because they violated a liberty of contract protected by the due process clause, Black became an adamant opponent of those who concluded that the Constitution protected other unenumerated rights more readily described as civil liberties. Nevertheless, Black vigorously defended civil liberties that were listed in the Constitution. His insistence that " 'no law' means 'no law' " in the First Amendment's provision that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech" led Black to a rigid stance on free expression, which came under pressure early in his court career in cases involving labor picketing.

One of Black's early opinions as a justice seemed addressed to those who thought his Klan membership demonstrated hostility towards civil rights and civil liberties. Reversing a conviction based on a confession beaten out of an African-American suspect, Black wrote, the courts "stand against any winds that blow as havens of refuge for those who might otherwise suffer because they are helpless, weak, outnumbered, or because they are non-conforming victims of prejudice and public excitement" (Chambers v. Florida, 1940).



Freyer, Tony. Hugo L. Black and the Dilemma of AmericanLiberalism. 1990.

Newman, Roger K. Hugo Black: A Biography. 1994.

Williams, Charlotte. Hugo Black: A Study in the JudicialProcess. 1950.

Yarbrough, Tinsley E. Mr. Justice Black and His Critics. 1988.

Mark Tushnet