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Matthews, Stanley (1824–1889)


Stanley Matthews's political connections and his legal work for railroads led to his Supreme Court nomination in 1881; these same activities also nearly prevented him from taking a place on the bench. Like his predecessor, noah swayne, Matthews had been an Ohio antislavery Democrat and a Democratic appointee as a United States attorney. By 1860, however, he had switched to the Republican party. After civil war military service, he became an important leader of the Cincinnati bar. Before the Ohio Supreme Court, Matthews represented the Cincinnati Board of Education and supported its authority to abolish religious instruction in the public schools. His eloquent argument defended separation of church and state as the best way to insure religious liberty.

Matthews served as one of rutherford b. hayes's lawyers during the contested electoral battle in 1877. Near the end of his administration, Hayes nominated Matthews to succeed Swayne, but because of internal Republican patronage feuds, as well as questions about Matthews's railroad connections, the senate took no action. President james a. garfield, under pressure from Hayes's allies and prominent business interests, resubmitted the nomination. After a long, bitter fight, the Senate confirmed Matthews by a one-vote majority.

Matthews clearly served railroad interests when he joined the Court's decision in wabash, st. louis & pacific railroad co. v. illinois (1886), substantially weakening the state regulatory doctrine of Munn v. Illinois (1877). Similarly, he concurred in the nearly unanimous decision in the civil rights cases (1883), which capped a legal and political counterassault against racial equality.

theWabash case, while limiting state regulation, decisively stimulated federal economic regulation under the commerce clause. Matthews relied on an expansive conception of national power in bowman v. chicago and northwestern railway co. (1888), ruling invalid a state's prohibition of liquor shipments from other states. However desirable the state's regulation, Matthews said, it infringed on Congress's exclusive power. In Poindexter v. Greenhow (1885) Matthews relied on the contract clause when he held that states could not lawfully repudiate their debts.

Matthews's most important cases involved the interpretation of the fourteenth amendment. In hurtado v. california (1884) he held for the Court that even in a capital case an accusation by information rather than indictment by a grand jury did not deny due process of law contrary to the fourteenth amendment. The Hurtado ruling stood for nearly a half century as a barrier to any tendency toward nationalizing civil rights and civil liberties. Yet in yick wo v. hopkins (1886) Matthews spoke for the Court on one of those rare occasions when it advanced civil rights. Holding unconstitutional the discriminatory application of a San Francisco ordinance requiring licensing of wooden laundries, used to destroy Chinese businesses, Matthews described the Fourteenth Amendment in libertarian terms that usually were reserved for corporate cases. Indeed, he cast the plight of the Chinese in language that any good entrepreneur could understand: "For, the very idea that one man may be compelled to hold his life, or the means of living, or any material right essential to the enjoyment of life, at the mere will of another, seems to be intolerable in any country where freedom prevails, as being the essence of slavery itself."

Matthews spoke for the Court in one of the Mormon anti-polygamy cases, sustaining congressional action and invoking the prevailing norms of the family and marriage. He also voted to strike down the Ku Klux Klan laws in united states v. harris (1883); he agreed with the majority that american indians were not citizens in Elk v. Wilkins (1884); and he concurred that state miscegenation laws were constitutional in pace v. alabama (1883).

Matthews epitomized the nation's retreat from the reforming zeal of reconstruction. The controversy surrounding Matthews's appointment eventually subsided, and he carried out his duties until his death in early 1889.

Stanley I. Kutler


Filler, Louis 1969 Stanley Matthews. In Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds., The Justices of the Supreme Court, Vol. 2:1351–1378. New York: Chelsea House.

Magrath, C. Peter 1963 Morrison R. Waite: The Triumph of Character. New York: Macmillan.

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