Stone, Harlan Fiske

views updated May 29 2018


Harlan Fiske Stone served as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1925 to 1941 and as chief justice from 1941 to 1946. A believer in judicial restraint, he was also a defender of civil rights and civil liberties. Stone was often a lone dissenter in the 1920s and 1930s when conservatives, who dominated the Court, struck down state and federal legislation that sought to regulate business and working conditions.

Stone was born on October 11, 1872, in Chesterfield, New Hampshire. He graduated

from Amherst College in 1894 and Columbia Law School in 1898. Admitted to the New York bar the year of his graduation, Stone became a member of a prominent New York City law firm. He was also a part-time instructor at Columbia Law School from 1899 to 1902. In 1902 Stone left his law firm to become a professor of law at Columbia. From 1910 to 1923 he was dean of the law school. He resigned in 1924 to join Sullivan and Cromwell, the most prestigious law firm in New York City.

In 1924 President calvin coolidge appointed Stone attorney general. The justice department had been tarnished by the teapot dome scandal during the administration of

Coolidge's predecessor, President warren g. harding. In addition, the Bureau of Investigation (BI), the forerunner of the federal bureau of investigation (FBI), had become a home to political cronyism and corruption. Stone appointed j. edgar hoover to head the BI and institute wide-ranging reforms. Stone's administration of the Department of Justice drew praise from Congress and President Coolidge.

Coolidge nominated Stone to the Supreme Court in 1925. Some senators were fearful that Stone's Wall Street connections would cause him to favor business interests. Responding to these concerns, Stone proposed that he appear before the senate judiciary committee to answer questions. The committee accepted, thereby creating the now-traditional confirmation process used for federal court appointments. Stone was easily confirmed.

In the 1920s the Court was dominated by conservative justices who struck down many state and federal laws that sought to regulate labor, business, commerce, and working conditions. Stone dissented from these decisions, arguing that the Court should exercise judicial restraint and allow Congress and state legislatures to craft laws that address pressing social and economic problems.

With the election of President franklin d. roosevelt in 1932, the Supreme Court's hostility to government regulation drew even greater attention as it declared unconstitutional a host of new deal economic reforms. Stone wrote a biting dissent in the case of United States v. Butler, 297 U.S. 1, 56 S. Ct. 312, 80 L. Ed. 477 (1936), which involved a processing tax paid by farmers to fund subsidies paid to eligible farmers under Roosevelt's Agricultural Adjustment Act. The act was declared unconstitutional because all farmers were taxed but only specific farmers received benefits. Stone argued that the subsidies were valid.

Although Stone was a Republican and President Roosevelt a Democrat, Roosevelt appointed Stone chief justice in 1941. Stone's tenure as chief justice was marked by bitter fighting among the justices, which has been blamed partly on Stone's inability to negotiate and build a consensus.

Stone's commitment to civil liberties was demonstrated in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586, 60 S. Ct. 1010, 84 L. Ed. 1375 (1940). He was the lone dissenter when the Court upheld a state law that required Jehovah's Witnesses to salute the flag, even though this conflicted with their religious beliefs. Stone argued that the law infringed on the first amendment right to the free exercise of religion. Three years later his view was endorsed by the Court in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 63 S. Ct. 1178, 87 L. Ed. 1628 (1943), when it overruled Gobitis.

In the area of civil rights, Stone helped move the Court from tacit acceptance of the racially discriminatory status quo in the southern states to a more aggressive stance. In United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 61 S. Ct. 1031, 85 L. Ed. 1368 (1941), the Court ruled that the federal government could regulate party primaries to prevent election fraud that resulted in the failure to count African American votes. Three years later the Court struck down the white primary, which excluded African Americans from southern Democratic parties and Democratic primary elections (Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649, 64 S. Ct. 757, 88 L. Ed. 987 [1944]). Stone played a pivotal role in deciding these cases.

Stone contributed to modern constitutional analysis in a famous footnote to his opinion in United States v. Carolene Products Company, 304 U.S. 144, 58 S. Ct. 778, 82 L. Ed. 1234 (1938). Known as footnote four, it stated that "prejudice against discrete and insular minorities may be a special condition, which tends seriously to curtail the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities and which may call for a more searching judicial scrutiny." This footnote became the basis for the "strict scrutiny" test, which the Court applies to assess the constitutionality of legislation concerning the rights of racial minorities, religious sects, aliens, prisoners, and other "discrete and insular minorities." Under strict scrutiny the government must demonstrate more than just a rational basis for legislation. It must show a compelling state interest and prove that the legislation is narrowly tailored to meet that interest.

"The law [should not be seen as] a hermetically sealed compartment of social science, to be explored and its principles formulated without reference to those social and economic forces which call law into existence."
Harlan Fiske Stone

Stone's tenure, however, was not unblemished. In korematsu v. united states, 323 U.S. 214, 65 S. Ct. 193, 89 L. Ed. 194 (1944), he upheld the forced relocation of Japanese Americans to detention camps during world war ii. The decision was based on the wartime powers of the president to take emergency actions for national security reasons.

Stone died on April 22, 1946, in Washington, D.C.

further readings

Galston, Miriam. 1995. "Activism and Restraint: The Evolution of Harlan Fiske Stone's Judicial Philosophy." Tulane Law Review 70 (November).

Konefsky, Samuel Joseph. 1945. Chief Justice Stone and the Supreme Court. Reprint, 1971. New York: Hafner.

Stone, Harlan Fiske. 2001. Law and Its Administration. Union, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange.

Urofsky, Melvin I. 1997. Division and Discord: The Supreme Court Under Stone and Vinson, 1941–1953. Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press.


Footnote 4; Japanese American Evacuation Cases.

Harlan Fiske Stone

views updated Jun 27 2018

Harlan Fiske Stone

Harlan Fiske Stone (1872-1946), as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, at first could not be classified either as conservative or liberal but finally stood with the liberal justices.

Harlan Fiske Stone was born in Chesterfield, N.H., on Oct. 11, 1872. The family soon moved to Amherst, Mass. Harlan's father was a farmer, and the sons did the typical farm chores.

Stone attended public school in Amherst and then, after 2 years of high school, enrolled in the Massachusetts Agricultural College. He led his fellow students in a number of pranks; for one of these he was expelled. He was accepted by Amherst College, graduating in 1894. He was bent on a career in medicine. At Amherst he tutored other students and sold typewriters and insurance. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, was business manager of the school paper, and played on the football team. Somewhere along the way, he gave up the idea of medicine for a career in law. To earn the money for law school, he taught high school science. In 1896 he entered the Columbia University School of Law, supporting himself by teaching history. In June 1898 he received his law degree and soon passed his bar examinations.

Stone joined the well-known New York City legal firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, later moving to another firm. He married Agnes Harvey in 1899, and the couple had two sons.

Law School Dean and Attorney General

In his early days in practice Stone supplemented his income by lecturing at Columbia School of Law. He became a professor in 1902, resigning in 1905 to give full time to the firm of Satterlee, Canfield and Stone. Stone appeared to be perfectly content making money until, in 1910, he became dean of the Columbia School of Law. The work as dean was most rewarding. Stone managed to continue his law practice, teach, and also advise and counsel students. He was one of the most loved and revered Columbia professors of that day.

This so-called conservative lawyer proved to be most liberal in defending his faculty. When the university decided to dismiss two professors because of their pacifist speeches, he worked out a settlement between the teachers and Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler. Stone was much upset by the U.S. attorney general's "Red raids."

Yet there were too many examples of Stone's conservatism to convince his fellow faculty members that he was in any way liberal. His courses in personal property, mortgages, and equity law were geared conservatively. In 1923 his conservatism seemed confirmed when he resigned as dean to become a partner in the Sullivan and Cromwell firm. During the next year he handled corporation and estate work. In 1924 President Calvin Coolidge, who had known Stone in Amherst, named him U.S. attorney general. The appointment was well received by the banking and business community.

As U.S. attorney general, Stone moved quickly to rid the department of those involved in the "Red scare" regime. He also made an appointment that years later would remain controversial when he made J. Edgar Hoover head of the Bureau of Criminal Investigations (later the Federal Bureau of Investigation). Stone also moved against the Aluminum Corporation of America as a violator of the antitrust laws. This corporation was under control of the family of Andrew Mellon, who was then secretary of the treasury. Before this case could be readied for court, President Coolidge named Stone an associate justice of the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Justice

Stone's new appointment ran into some difficulties. Some people suggested that he was pushed onto the Court to get him out of the attorney general's office. However, the appointment was confirmed. On the bench Stone moved slowly. Justice Louis Brandeis, a liberal, along with Oliver Wendell Holmes, tried to give Stone a much broader view of the Constitution. In time the liberals on the Court were considered to be Brandeis, Holmes, Stone, and later Benjamin Cardozo.

The question of the constitutionality of many of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal laws eventually confronted the Supreme Court. Stone met these challenges and remained liberal in his thinking. He concurred in the Court's decision on the unconstitutionality of the National Recovery Administration. He supported the majority in the famous NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation (1937), which preserved the National Labor Relations law.

With Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes's resignation in 1941, President Roosevelt named Stone to the position. However, Stone is remembered for his work as an associate justice rather than for his achievements as chief justice because, as presiding officer, he was unable to head the Court as efficiently as had his predecessor. Stone looked upon the Constitution as a broad charter of government. He summed up his philosophy by stating: "I have nothing personally against the world in which I grew up. That world has always made me very comfortable. But I don't see why I should let my social predilections interfere with experimental legislation that is not prohibited in the Constitution."

One of the most important pieces of New Deal legislation was the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. It was inevitable that the Supreme Court would be asked to rule on its constitutionality. In U.S. v. Butler (1936) a majority of the Court declared the AAA constitutional. Justice Stone wrote a strong dissenting opinion. He revealed his conception of judicial functions when he declared: "The power of courts to declare a statute unconstitutional is subject to two guiding principles of decision which ought never to be absent from judicial consciousness. One is that courts are concerned only with the power to enact statutes, not with their wisdom. The other is that while unconstitutional exercise of power by the executive and legislative branches of the government is subject to judicial restraint, the only check upon our own exercise of power is our own sense of self-restraint."

Stone was not a colorful figure, but he was a human one. He died in Washington on April 22, 1946. If one was to seek among Stone's utterances for a phrase that would summarize his contributions, it might be: "… the Constitution has not adopted any particular set of social and economic ideas, to the exclusion of others, which however wrong they seemed to me, fair-minded men might yet hold."

Further Reading

The best general study of Stone is Alpheus Mason, Harlan Fiske Stone: Pillar of the Law (1956). An excellent survey of Stone as chief justice is in Alpheus Mason, The Supreme Court from Taft to Warren (1958). A complete discussion of Stone's dissent in U.S. v. Butler is in Walter F. Murphy, Congress and the Courts: A Case Study in the American Political Process (1962). Kenneth Urmbreit brings the man into focus in Our Eleven Chief Justices: A History of the Supreme Court in Terms of Their Personalities (1942). □