Billings Learned Hand

views updated May 29 2018

Billings Learned Hand

Billings Learned Hand (1872-1961), American jurist, was a senior judge of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals that had jurisdiction over Vermont, Connecticut, and districts of New York.

Learned Hand was born in Albany, N.Y., on Jan. 27, 1872. His father was a leading New York lawyer. At Harvard University, Hand majored in philosophy and graduated with highest honors and a Phi Beta Kappa key. As the editor of the Harvard Advocate, he had developed a strong leaning toward writing which showed later in his stylistically brilliant judicial decisions.

Hand remained in Cambridge to take his master's degree in philosophy in 1894. But pressure to become a lawyer was inevitable because there were so many lawyers in the family. In 2 years, during which he was editor of the Harvard Law Review, Hand earned his degree from the Harvard Law School.

By 1902 the young, vibrant lawyer had had his fill of closing mortgages and trying small negligence suits in Albany and moved to New York City. Within 2 years he became a partner in a first-class firm, where he remained until 1909. The American Bar Association Journal commented that during this period Hand was a "doughty opponent in civil cases as well as a trusted adviser of business concerns." The year he had arrived in New York, he had met and married Frances Amelia Fincke. The young couple bought a brownstone in midtown Manhattan and raised three daughters.

In 1909, as one of President William Howard Taft's first judicial appointments, Hand was made a Federal district judge for the Southern District of New York. During his tenure on the court he proved again and again his progressive leanings. During World War I, in a freedom-of-speech case concerning a possible violation of the Espionage Act of 1917 by a magazine, The Masses, Hand's ruling in favor of the publication and against the government was called "a notable example of fairness and self-restraint."

In 1924 Hand was named a judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Judicial Circuit. He served there until his death in 1961, by which time he had filed over 2, 400 opinions. In Sheldon v. Metro-Goldwyn Pictures (1936), one of the most famous opinions, the problem centered on violation of a copyright. A movie had been produced based on an actual situation; a novel covered the same incident. Hand decided that the film company had created its vehicle from the book rather than from the incident. This decision is considered one of the most critical studies of parallelism in creative expression.

His handling of lower-court decisions, in cases involving the charge of monopoly, many times set judicial precedence for decades. Hand took one year to render his decision in United States v. Associated Press (1943). He finally charged the Associated Press with violating the Sherman Antitrust Law when it refused to supply its news to competing papers. This decision has been called "one of the most important legal cases in the history of the American Press." Judge Hand's decisions have been used as models in many subsequent antitrust cases.

Justice Felix Frankfurter, in a Harvard Law Review tribute to Hand on his seventy-fifth birthday, declared, "Hand's many decisions will stand the test of time because of their insights, the morality of the mind which respects these insights, and the beauty with which they are expressed."

Further Reading

Many articles have been written on the work of Hand, but no full-length biography has appeared. The one book that summarizes his judicial and personal career is his The Spirit of Liberty: Papers and Addresses, edited by Irving Dilliard (1952; 3d ed. 1960). In his fine introduction to this volume Dilliard gives an incisive picture of Hand as a man of letters. The Art and Craft of Judging: The Decisions of Judge Learned Hand, edited by Hershel Shanks (1968), has a biographical introduction and annotation by the editor. □