Hughes, Charles Evans

views updated Jun 27 2018


The long public career of Charles Evans Hughes prepared him to be a powerful chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Hughes was a legal and political dynamo. Beginning as a lawyer and law professor in New York in the 1880s, he became known nationally for his role in investigating power utilities and the insurance industry. He went on to a career in national and international affairs—first as a two-term governor of New York, second as a Republican nominee for president, and third as secretary of state. He was twice appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, serving as an associate justice from 1910 to 1916 and as chief justice from 1930 to 1941. His intellectual vigor and strong hand guided the Court

through the critical period of the new deal era when it made significant changes in its views on the constitutional limits on government power.

Hughes was born April 11, 1862, in Glen Falls, New York. Educated at Columbia University Law School, he spent his twenties and thirties in private practice and teaching law at Columbia and Cornell Universities. His expertise was in commercial law and by the time he was in his forties he had built a considerable reputation in that area. The New York state legislature chose him in 1905 to lead public investigations of the gas and electrical utilities in

New York City and to probe the state's insurance industry. His work not only resulted in ground-breaking regulatory plans, later highly influential across the United States, but also catapulted Hughes into a political career. He immediately ran for governor of New York and twice won election to that office as a politician known for independence of mind and commitment to administrative reform. In 1910, his second term as governor had not yet expired when he stepped down and accepted President William Howard Taft's appointment to the Supreme Court.

This move characterized the lifelong tension between Hughes's attractions to the legal and political spheres. He left public office to join the Court; later he would leave the Court to run for office again, then return to the Court as chief justice. In his nearly seven years on the Court as an associate justice, he displayed a flexibility of thought that led him to side at times with liberals and at times with the conservative majority. His most significant opinions turned on the issue of federal power. In particular, these opinions weighed the extent to which the commerce clause of the Constitution gave the federal government authority to regulate the national economy. The opinions were delivered in the Minnesota and Shreveport Rate cases, in which the Court's decisions laid the groundwork for the expansion of federal regulation in the years to come (Simpson v. Shepard, 230 U.S. 352, 33 S. Ct. 729, 57 L. Ed. 1511 [1913]; Houston, East & West Texas Railway Co. v. United States, 234 U.S. 342, 34 S. Ct. 833, 58 L. Ed. 1341 [1914]).

The middle years of Hughes's career saw tumultuous change. In 1916, he stepped down from the Court to return to politics. Although he had not actively sought the Republican Party's nomination for president, the party drafted him, and he reluctantly agreed to run against woodrow wilson. Despite a hard-fought campaign, Hughes lost the close election and returned to private practice. His respite from public service was brief. In 1921, President warren g. harding appointed Hughes secretary of state, a difficult position because of the challenges facing the United States in the aftermath of world war i: the war debt, reparations, the newly established Soviet Union, and especially relations with East Asia. Naval disarmament ranked high among Hughes's concerns. In 1921 and 1922, he organized the Washington Conference, which for nearly a decade curbed naval growth and brought stability to the western Pacific.

The final chapter in Hughes's career returned him to the Supreme Court. Hughes served as secretary of state to Harding's successor, calvin coolidge, then resigned in 1925 to work in private practice. Between that and his next stint on the Court, he published a book-length work entitled The Supreme Court of the United States: Its Foundation, Methods, and Achievements: An Interpretation (1928, reprinted 2000). In 1930, President herbert hoover nominated him for chief justice. Bitter opponents voiced criticism of Hughes's political career and his resignation but failed to block his appointment in a confirmation vote of 52–26. At age 68, Hughes became the oldest man ever to be chosen chief justice.

The Hughes Court sat during a controversial period in U.S. legal history. The Depression years had brought misery and a radical federal response. President franklin d. roosevelt's economic recovery plans, known collectively as the New Deal, met opposition in Congress and from the justices of the Court. Several pieces of New Deal legislation faced constitutional tests and failed. After unanimously holding unconstitutional the national industrial recovery act (48 Stat. 195 [1933]) in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495, 55 S. Ct. 837, 79 L. Ed. 1570 (1935), the Court provoked a battle with the frustrated president. Roosevelt proposed an increase to the number of seats on the Court, hoping to then pack the Court with justices favorable to his views. Hughes wrote to the senate judiciary committee in a move to help thwart Roosevelt's plan.

"When we lose the right to be different, we lose the privilege to be free."
Charles Evans Hughes

By taking a largely dim view of both federal and state regulatory power, the Hughes Court differed little from its conservative predecessors. In 1937, this changed dramatically. In upholding the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq., Hughes wrote a landmark opinion that greatly strengthened the labor movement (nlrb v. jones & laughlin steel corp., 301 U.S. 1, 57 S. Ct. 615, 81 L. Ed. 893 [1937]). Also that year the Court upheld a state minimum wage law, in west coast hotel v. parrish, 300 U.S. 379, 57 S. Ct. 578, 81 L. Ed. 703. The Parrish decision was a striking departure from rulings of previous decades. Only 15 years earlier, for example, the Court had refused to force employers of adult women to pay a minimum wage, viewing such a requirement as an unconstitutional infringement of the liberty of contract. The 1937 decisions together have been called a constitutional revolution because they marked a great change in jurisprudence that liberalized the Court's view of government power.

When Hughes retired at last in 1941, at age 80, he had made a powerful impression on the law and on the Court. During his tenure as chief justice, he had shown the same flexibility of mind that marked his period as an associate justice: siding alternately with liberal and conservative colleagues, he often cast the swing vote. He had clearly run the Court with a strong hand, not only in leading the discussion but frequently in persuading justices to vote with him. Justice felix frankfurter, who served under Hughes, likened him to the conductor of an orchestra: "He took his seat at the center of the Court with a mastery, I suspect, unparalleled in the history of the Court."

Hughes died August 27, 1948, in Osterville, Massachusetts. Succeeding generations have compared his bold leadership to that of Chief Justice earl warren, who headed the Court two decades later.

further readings

Hall, Timothy L. 2001. Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Facts on File.

Perkins, Dexter. 1978. Charles Evans Hughes and American Democratic Statesmanship. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.

Schwartz, Bernard. 1995. "Supreme Court Superstars: The Ten Greatest Justices." Tulsa Law Journal 31 (fall).


Labor Law; Labor Union; Supreme Court of the United States.

Hughes, Charles Evans

views updated May 23 2018


Jurist and statesman Charles Evans Hughes (April 11, 1862–August 27, 1948) was born in Glen Falls, New York, the only child of David Charles Hughes, an evangelical minister, and Mary Catherine Connelly, a schoolteacher. His father's calling carried the family to a number of New York and New Jersey communities during Charles's youth. A precocious child, he studied at home until age nine, attended three years of public school in Newark and another year in Manhattan before entering college at Colgate (then Madison University). After two years at Colgate, he transferred to Brown University, finishing third in his class.

After graduating first in his Columbia law class, Hughes passed the New York bar with a record high score and joined a New York firm in 1884. He became a partner three years later and married the daughter of the firm's senior partner the next year. Overcome by work and poor health, he left private practice briefly for a teaching position at Cornell Law School, but he soon returned to the firm, becoming a prominent figure in commercial law.

Hughes would also become active in public service and politics. As counsel to committees of the New York legislature, he led inquiries into corruption and mismanagement of the state's gas, electric, and insurance industries. A reluctant but winning candidate for governor on the Republican ticket in 1906 and 1908, he pushed successfully for creation of two utility regulatory commissions and the first significant workman's compensation program in the nation.

Although Theodore Roosevelt had backed Hughes in his two gubernatorial races, the future justice's distaste for the give and take of politics caused strains in their relationship. In 1910, however, President William Howard Taft appointed Hughes to a seat on the United States Supreme Court, where he served with distinction until resigning in 1916 to make a losing bid for the White House against President Woodrow Wilson. Following the election, he returned to private practice in New York, then served as secretary of state in the Warren Harding administration.

In 1930, President Herbert Hoover brought Hughes back to the Supreme Court, this time as chief justice. Hughes held the Court's center seat during one of the most tumultuous periods in its–and the nation's–history. Although never as committed to the laissez faire philosophy of the Court's "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," which critics had dubbed the most conservative justices of the period, Hughes wrote or joined a number of decisions rejecting New Deal programs and state legislation designed to pull the country out of the depths of the Depression. He spoke for the Court, for example, in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (1935), invalidating provisions of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). But he also authored Home Building & Loan v. Blaisdell (1934), substantially narrowing the scope of the contract clause as a restriction on state power. And when the Court began dismantling its laissez faire precedents during the 1937 court-packing episode, Hughes wrote the first two opinions signaling an end to that era: West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937), upholding a state minimum wage law for women virtually identical to one the Court had struck down the previous year; and National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin (1937), upholding federal regulation of labor-management relations. Chief Justice Hughes retired from the Court in 1941 and died at age eight-six in 1948.



Danelski, David J., and J. S. Tulchin, eds. The Autobiographical Notes of Charles Evans Hughes. 1973.

Glad, Betty. Charles Evans Hughes and the Illusions of Innocence: A Study in American Diplomacy. 1966.

Hendel, Samuel. Charles Evans Hughes and the Supreme Court. 1951.

Pusey, Merlo. Charles Evans Hughes. 1951.

Tinsley E. Yarbrough

Charles Evans Hughes

views updated May 29 2018

Charles Evans Hughes

The American jurist and statesman Charles Evans Hughes (1862-1948) served as secretary of state in two administrations and was a chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Charles Evans Hughes was born at Glens Falls, N.Y., on April 14, 1862, the son of a minister. Precocious and gifted with a phenomenal memory, Hughes entered Madison University at the age of 14, transferring later to Brown University. He graduated from Cornell Law School in 1884. For the next 20 years he practiced law, briefly interrupting his work to teach law at Cornell.

At the age of 43 Hughes was chosen by a legislative committee to investigate the gas and electric industry in New York. His brilliant success in exposing extortionate rates led to his appointment as investigator of the insurance scandals in New York. In 1906 he was nominated as the Republican gubernatorial candidate. He won in a bitter campaign against William Randolph Hearst.

Hughes was a vigorous governor. He won a battle for the regulation of public utilities, strove to stamp out racetrack gambling, and was interested in conservation and in an employment compensation law. He was an exacting administrator, demanding high standards.

After a second term as governor, Hughes was appointed an associate justice of the Supreme Court by President William Howard Taft. He distinguished himself by supporting national railroad rate regulation and wrote one of the most important decisions in this field. In 1916 Hughes resigned from the Court to accept the Republican presidential nomination. He was beaten by a narrow margin in the ensuing campaign against Woodrow Wilson. In 1920 Hughes advocated ratification of the League of Nations treaty with reservations and urged the election of Warren Harding to implement acceptance. However, once appointed Harding's secretary of state, he made no effort to secure American adherence to the League Covenant.

Hughes was a brilliant secretary of state. He began by calling the Washington Conference on the Limitation of Armaments, at which he electrified the delegates by proposing a specific schedule for reducing the battleship force of the great naval powers. After some jockeying, a treaty was signed. In a significant concession to Japan, the United States agreed not to increase its fortifications in the Far Pacific. Hughes also brought about a partial settlement of the vexing question of German World War I reparations, gave a more precise definition to the Monroe Doctrine, and improved the quality of the U.S. Foreign service.

After 1925 Hughes for the most part practiced law until, in 1930, he was nominated by President Herbert Hoover as chief justice of the United States. Hughes presided over a Court badly divided and hostile to the New Deal of incoming president Franklin D. Roosevelt. He joined in the Court's decision to set aside the National Recovery Act of 1934 and in the ruling against the Agricultural Recovery Act of 1935. When President Roosevelt advanced his famous Court-packing plan in 1937, Hughes carefully pulverized the President's argument that the Court was behind in its work. This sparring ended when Hughes joined four other justices in sustaining the Wagner Labor Relations Act, an important piece of New Deal legislation. Hughes always maintained that he acted on the basis of the law, not political considerations.

Hughes took an advanced stand on civil rights, especially in cases involving African American rights, and he was a firm advocate of freedom of the press. He resigned from the Court in 1941 and died on Aug. 27, 1948.

Further Reading

The authorized biography of Hughes is Merlo J. Pusey, Charles Evans Hughes (2 vols., 1951). A briefer study is Dexter Perkins, Charles Evans Hughes and American Democratic Statesmanship (1956). A study of the Progressive movement in New York State, with the focus upon Hughes's years as governor, is Robert F. Wesser, Charles Evans Hughes: Politics and Reform in New York, 1905-1910 (1967).

Additional Sources

Perkins, Dexter, Charles Evans Hughes and American democratic statesmanship, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Pusey, Merlo John, Charles Evans Hughes, New York: Garland Pub., 1979. □

Hughes, Charles Evans

views updated May 17 2018

Hughes, Charles Evans (1862–1948) US statesman and jurist, associate justice of the Supreme Court (1910–16), secretary of state (1921–25), eleventh US chief justice (1930–41). He was the Republican presidential candidate (1916) but narrowly lost to Woodrow Wilson. He served as secretary of state under Presidents Harding and Coolidge and negotiated the naval disarmament treaties emanating from the Washington Conference. He was a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (1926–30) and judge of the Permanent Court of International Justice (1928–30). Appointed chief justice by President Hoover, he was a moderating influence. He retired in 1941.

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