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Supreme Court Justices

Charles Evans Hughes (1862-1948)

Charles Evans Hughes was born in New York state on April 11, 1862. His father was a minister who moved to the United States from England. His mother's family had lived in America from the colonial period. Hughes was a precocious and intelligent child who was educated at home until he attended college at Madison University (now Colgate University) and at Brown University. Hughes then attended Columbia Law School, where he excelled. He went to work with Walter S. Carter, whose ability to find and hone talented lawyers made his law firm the well-spring of many well-known New York law firms. Hughes married Carter's daughter Antoinette. The work of newly developing corporate law firms in the last years of the 19th century in New York brought both wealth and stress. Stress caused Hughes to leave the practice of law in the early 1890s to teach law at Cornell, but he returned after two years for monetary reasons and because of his loyalty to his father-in-law. Hughes became a well-known lawyer to the public through his efforts in 1905 in investigating the pricing by companies of gas utility rates, and later that year, in investigating self-dealing and corrupt financial practices in the insurance industry (the Armstrong Committee). Hughes's reputation as an honest, thorough and fair-minded lawyer led to his nomination in 1906 as the Republican gubernatorial candidate in New York. He was elected Governor, and was in office from 1907-10, when he was appointed to the Supreme Court as an associate justice. Hughes wrote the Court's opinion in Bailey v. Alabama (1910), which held unconstitutional an Alabama statute that permitted peonage. He dissented in Coppage v. Kansas, in which the Court held unconstitutional a law prohibiting an employer from conditioning employment on an employee's promise not to join a union (the yellow-dog contract). In 1916, Hughes resigned from the Court to accept the Republican nomination as its presidential candidate. The incumbent, Woodrow Wilson, defeated Hughes by an electoral count of 277-254. (Wilson earned over half a million more popular votes than Hughes, 9,127,695-8,533,507.) Hughes returned to the private practice of law. In 1921, he was appointed Secretary of State by Warren G. Harding, where he remained until 1925. Later that decade, he was a judged of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the Permanent Court of International Justice. In 1930, after the death of Chief Justice William Howard Taft (who, as President, had nominated Hughes to the Court in 1910), President Herbert Hoover nominated Hughes to the Court as Chief Justice. Hughes was Chief Justice of a fractious, controversial Court. Hughes was a progressive on issues of race, and during the Great Depression, was often supportive of New Deal and state New Deal-type legislation. But he and the other members of the Court enraged FDR when the Court unanimously held that several New Deal acts were unconstitutional on "Black Monday," May 27, 1935. In several other cases, Hughes found himself in a minority of four, with the so-called "Four Horsemen" (Pierce Butler, James McReynolds, George Sutherland, and Willis Van Devanter) and Owen J. Roberts in the majority. After FDR was re-elected in 1936, he turned to "solving" the problem of a recalcitrant Court by urging Congress to "reorganize" the Supreme Court by adding one justice for every justice who had reached the age of 70 and who had not resigned. This plan, which FDR's opponents dubbed a "court-packing" plan, was suggested disingenuously by FDR as necessary for the Court to keep up with its work. During the debate concerning the plan, Hughes sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee signed by Hughes, Justice Brandeis and Justice Van Devanter, stating that the Court was up-to-date on its work.  During this constitutional crisis of 1937, Hughes wrote the Court's opinions in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish and NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel, both of which strongly suggested New Deal measures would no longer be held unconstitutional. (In both cases, Justice Roberts silently joined the five-man majority, and in each case, it appeared that the decision contradicted views either stated by or acquiesced to by Roberts. This is the famous "switch in time that saved nine.") Hughes remained on the Court until summer 1941. He died seven years later, on August 27, 1948.