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Supreme Court Justices

Pierce Butler (1866-1939)

Pierce Butler was in Minnesota less than a year after the end of the Civil War, in March 1866. Shortly after graduating from Carleton College in Minnesota, Butler became a member of the Minnesota bar. He was a successful railroad lawyer in St. Paul for nearly 35 years before he was nominated to the Supreme Court by Republican President Warren Harding. Butler was a Roman Catholic and a Democrat, but was also, most importantly, a political conservative.

Butler is best known as one of the "Four Horsemen" (along with James McReynolds, Willis Van Devanter, and George Sutherland. The term was coined by Yale Law School Professor Fred Rodell in his 1955 book Nine Men) who regularly opposed New Deal legislation during FDR's first term of office, March 1933-January 1937. This bloc, joined sometimes by Owen J. Roberts and Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, led, at least indirectly, to FDR's famous "court-packing" plan, unveiled in February 1937, shortly after FDR's reinauguration. Butler consistently opposed state and federal regulation of business, and the New Deal. Interestingly, his Catholicism may account for several other seemingly unusual votes in "individual rights" cases. Butler voted with the majority in both Meyer v. Nebraska, which struck down Nebraska's law prohibiting the teaching of German to children in private (and, in that case, religious) schools, and in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, which held unconstitutional Oregon's law barring parents from sending their children to private or religious (in that case, a Catholic) schools. He also was the only dissenter in Buck v. Bell, in which the Court allowed the Commonwealth of Virginia to sterilize Carrie Buck because she was claimed to be a "mental defective." Interestingly, Butler also dissented in Olmstead v. United States, which permitted the federal government to secretly wiretap individuals. He was not, however, a great defender of the free speech clause of the First Amendment.

Butler died on November 16, 1939.

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