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Shiras, George, Jr.


George Shiras Jr. served on the U.S. Supreme Court as an associate justice from 1892 to 1903. Plucked by political necessity at the age of sixty from his highly successful law practice, Shiras, who had never been a judge or politician, brought a lawyerly, pragmatic perspective to the Court. He wrote some opinions in favor of civil liberties, occasionally blocked the Court's full embrace of laissez-faire economics, and became notorious as the justice whose vote in 1895 torpedoed the new federal income tax. This last decision, for which Shiras was incorrectly blamed, ultimately led to the ratification of the sixteenth amendment in 1913.

Shiras was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on January 26, 1832, to a wealthy brewing family. He attended Yale Law School in 1853. Two years later he completed his training at a law office in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, before starting a legal practice with his brother. The practice specialized in representing the railroads

and other big industries during the boom era of Pittsburgh. So successful was Shiras that, by the late 1880s, he was earning the then-phenomenal income of $75,000 annually. He developed no national reputation, steering clear of partisan politics even when the state legislature nominated him for a senate seat. Independent in nature, he sometimes represented interests opposed to his business clients.

In 1892 President benjamin harrison nominated Shiras to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by the death of Justice joseph p. bradley. Like Bradley, Shiras was a Pennsylvania Republican, and convention dictated that Bradley's replacement be of similar political and geographic origin. Thus for political reasons Shiras was a good choice, even though he had no judicial or political experience. Strong opposition to the nomination came from the president's enemies. But support from powerful, private figures, including Andrew Carnegie, was ultimately persuasive.

" … to declare unlawful residence within the country to be an infamous crime, punishable by deprivation of liberty and property … [without] a judicial trial … is not consistent with the theory of our government."
—George Shiras Jr.

When Shiras joined the Court, the chief issue of the day was regulation of business. The Court was conservative, believing in the hands-off policy of laissez-faire economics. Shiras usually joined his fellow justices in voting to restrict antitrust and labor legislation. But he occasionally stood apart, as in Brass v. North Dakota, 153 U.S. 391, 14 S. Ct. 857, 38 L. Ed. 757 (1894), where he upheld state power to regulate. Moreover, he was committed to civil liberties. In Wong Wing v. United States, 163 U.S. 228, 16 S. Ct. 977, 41 L. Ed. 140 (1896), he wrote a landmark opinion extending basic rights to Chinese immigrants; it held that Congress had unconstitutionally allowed federal authorities to summarily sentence illegal Chinese aliens to twelve months of hard labor without indictment or a jury trial.

In his lifetime, Shiras became notorious for having cast the swing vote to kill the first peacetime federal income tax. The tax, passed in 1894, was a popular response to the growing disparity in income levels caused by industrial growth. The case was pollock v. farmers' loan & trust, 158 U.S. 601, 15 S. Ct. 912, 39 L. Ed. 1108, decided in three parts in 1895. The final vote, on May 20, was 5–4 against. Critics vilified Shiras for apparently changing his mind from an earlier vote. For nearly three decades, his reputation suffered until, after his death, it was persuasively argued that another justice had provided the swing vote. Pollock led directly to the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, allowing Congress to levy a federal income tax.

Shiras stepped down from the Court in 1903 at age seventy. He died on August 2, 1924, in Pittsburgh.

further readings

Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. 1969. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions. New York: Chelsea House.

Shiras, George, III. 1953. Justice George Shiras, Jr., of Pittsburgh, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, 1892–1903: A Chronicle of His Family, Life, and Times. Ed. and completed by Winfield Shiras. Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.

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