Shiras, George, JR. (1832–1924)

views updated

SHIRAS, GEORGE, JR. (1832–1924)

George Shiras, Jr., was appointed to the Supreme Court by benjamin harrison in 1892 and served for slightly more than a decade. A native of Pittsburgh and a Yale graduate, Shiras had maintained an independent, yet prosperous and varied law practice for nearly forty years before his appointment. He came to the Court without previous experience in public life and charted an independent course. His voting record suggests that he remained aloof from the era's policy debates yet maintained a fundamental distrust of institutional change. His unadorned and cool style and his emphasis on precedent and conventional rules of interpretation reflected his personality as well as his conception of the judicial function.

The 1890s were a transitional period in American public life, and the questions that crowded the Court's docket indicated the increasing scope and intensity of governmental interventions in economy and society. Three major classes of constitutional issues came up during Shiras's tenure. The first involved petitioners who sought enlarged judicial protection under the fourteenth amendment for freedom of contract in the face of state laws regulating labor relations and the price of essential services. They got no encouragement from Shiras. In Brass v. North Dakota (1894), a grain elevator case, he refused to restrict the range of "businesses affected with a public interest " to those with a "virtual monopoly" at a particular location; he also spoke for the Court in Knoxville v. Harbison (1901), sustaining a Tennessee statute that required employers to pay their workers in cash or company-store scrip redeemable in cash. Justices david j. brewer and rufus peckham, the fuller court's leading apostles of laissezfaire, dissented in each instance. Yet Shiras was consistently aligned with Brewer and Peckham in the second class of cases, including united states v. e. c. knight co. (1895) and champion v. ames (1903), involving federal authority under the commerce clause in policy domains traditionally reserved to the states. Congressional regulation of manufacturing corporations and public morals, like federal judicial review of state police power regulations under the Fourteenth Amendment, necessitated new and, in Shiras's view, illegitimate departures in the organization of constitutional power.

Shiras wrote his most powerful opinions in the third class of cases, involving petitioners whose liberty or property was jeopardized by intensified federal activity in areas of acknowledged federal competence. He complained repeatedly about the majority's penchant for narrow construction of the Fifth Amendment's just compensation clause when riparian land was damaged by federal construction of dams and other river improvements. He also dissented sharply in brown v. walker (1896), contending that a federal immunity statute for persons required to testify before the Interstate Commerce Commission was an inadequate substitute for the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. And in Wong Wing v. United States (1896) Shiras spoke for a unanimous Court that finally curbed Congress's draconian anti-Chinese program at the point where immigration officials were authorized to sentence illegal aliens to as much as one year of hard labor prior to deportation. The sentence of hard labor was an "infamous" one, Shiras explained. Consequently it could be invoked only after the Fifth and Sixth Amendment requirements of due process and trial by jury had been met.

Shiras had determined at the time of his appointment to retire at seventy to avoid burdening his brethren because of age. He underscored his habitual divergence from conventional norms by carrying through his resolve. His retirement in 1903 attracted little notice, and his death more than twenty years later even less. Shiras's constitutional jurisprudence was simply too idiosyncratic to generate a significant following at the bar, in the law schools, or among the general public.

Charles W. McCurdy


Paul, Arnold 1969 George Shiras, Jr. Pages 1577–1591 in Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds., The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions. New York: Chelsea House.

Shiras, Winfield 1953 Justice George Shiras, Jr. of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.