Strong, William (1808–1895)

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STRONG, WILLIAM (1808–1895)

Strong was a learned, able, hard-working Supreme Court Justice who competently handled the tedious routine of common law, admiralty, patent, and revenue law cases. Except for sustaining legal tenders and invalidating state-authorized exclusion of blacks from jury service, he rarely spoke for the Court in constitutional matters during his ten-year career. Strong's appointment in 1870 was viewed as part of an alleged court-packing scheme to reverse a recent decision invalidating legal tender legislation. But President ulysses s. grant had decided to nominate Strong and joseph p. bradley in January 1870, a month before an eight-man court, including a Justice who already had resigned, narrowly decided Hepburn v. Griswold. Grant, meanwhile, was well aware that Strong had written an opinion for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sustaining the laws.

Strong did not disappoint Grant. In May 1871, he wrote the majority opinion in Knox v. Lee and Parker v. Davis, reversing Hepburn. He largely based his argument on the necessary and proper clause, finding the legal tender legislation a necessary concomitant to the war power. He also refuted the Hepburn argument that the laws violated the "spirit of the Constitution" because they impaired the obligation of contracts. All contracts, Strong contended, had to anticipate the rightful exercise of congressional power.

Strong generally defended vested contractual and property rights, the legal tender cases notwithstanding. He joined Justice stephen j. field's dissent in Munn v. Illinois (1877). In his own dissent in the sinking fund cases (1879), he maintained that the government could not require railroads to divert part of their earnings into a special fund for payment of their federal debts. The original railroad grant contained no such provision, but Congress had reserved the right to alter, amend, or repeal the act. Strong nevertheless insisted that the new requirement was "plainly transgressive of legislative power" for it violated an implied contractual promise not to call for debt payment before 1897. Strong's dissent, along with those by joseph bradley and Field, heralded the procorporation, antistatist tendencies that dominated the Court for several decades.

The Court's concern with state economic regulation inevitably provoked operations of national authority. In the State Freight Tax Case (1873) (see philadelphia and reading r. r. co. v. pennsylvania) Strong offered a significant commentary on the scope of the commerce clause when it conflicted with traditional state power. Pennsylvania had imposed a tonnage tax on railroad freight carried within and out of the state, but Strong held that the transportation of goods was a "constituent of commerce" and the tax's "effect" unduly burdened interstate commerce. In a comparison case, Strong held valid a tax on corporate gross receipts irrespective of whether they came from interstate or intrastate businesses (State Tax on Railway Gross Receipts, 1873). In effect, the commerce clause was not a shield for private enterprise against state taxation.

Strong's record on civil rights was mixed. He joined the Court's majority in the slaughterhouse cases (1873) to restrict the scope of the fourteenth amendment. Similarly, he voted to limit federal guarantees for voting and civil rights. In blyew v. united states (1872), he wrote the Court's first opinion restricting the civil rights act of 1866. The act authorized federal trials for crimes "affecting persons" denied rights secured by law. Strong held, however, that federal courts lacked jurisdiction over a defendant accused of murdering three blacks on the ground that the dead persons could not be affected by any prosecution. Although Strong favored upholding a state statute requiring equal access in public transportation, he silently acquiesced when the Court held that the law unduly burdened interstate commerce (hall v. decuir, 1878). But he spoke for the Court in a series of cases that marked some exceptional, however limited, victories for blacks.

In strauder v. west virginia (1880) the Court invalidated a state statute excluding blacks from juries. Strong conceded that blacks were not entitled to have other blacks sit on their juries, but he held that they had a right to have juries selected impartially. The protection of one's life and liberty against racial prejudice was, Strong contended, a "legal right" under the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore the state's exclusion law constituted a denial of equal protection of the laws. In a companion case, Ex parte Virginia (1880), Strong upheld a section of the 1875 civil rights act which prohibited racial discrimination in jury selection. Although state law forbade such discrimination, a state judge had refused to call blacks as jurors. Strong brushed aside arguments that the judge's refusal was not the same as state action, which Congress concededly could prohibit. The judge, he insisted, held state office and acted for the state; as such he was obligated to obey the federal constitution and law. But in a third case decided that day, Virginia v. Rives (1880), Strong denied a plea for removal of a cause to a federal court on the ground of jury discrimination. Here blacks had been excluded as a result of discretionary action by jury commissioners, not as a result of state law as in Strauder. The decision in effect condoned the practical exclusion of blacks from southern juries for the next seventy-five years. Nevertheless, Strong's opinion in Ex Parte Virginia preserved a vestige of federal power that was revived in the civil rights act of 1957, the first such legislation since Reconstruction.

Strong did not have the domineering intellectual force of a Bradley, Field, or Miller, but he performed capably during his career. He was admired and respected by his diverse colleagues, and he managed to avoid the intense personal and ideological conflicts that characterized the period. He abruptly resigned in 1880. Strong was in good health, but he supposedly stepped down as an example to nathan clifford, ward hunt, and noah swayne who were ill and frequently absent from the bench. Within two years, the three resigned. In retirement, Strong publicized the Court's burdensome workload, and his efforts contributed to the creation of new courts of appeal in 1891.

(See circuit courts of appeals act.)

Stanley I. Kutler


Kutler, Stanley I. 1969 William Strong. In Friedman, Leon, and Israel, Fred L., eds., The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions, pages 1153–1178. New York: Chelsea House.