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Supreme Court Justices

Harlan Fiske Stone (1872-1946)

Harlan Fiske Stone was born in New Hampshire on October 11, 1872. He grew up on a farm, and his dislike of farm work led him to attend college. After being expelled from Massachusetts Agricultural College, Stone enrolled at Amherst, where he excelled socially, athletically and academically. After graduating from Amherst in 1894, Stone attended Columbia Law School, graduating in 1898. One sign of his intellect was that Columbia almost immediately hired him as a professor after graduation. Like many other professors of law at that time, Stone both taught and practiced law. In 1910, Stone was named Dean of the Columbia Law School, and served in that capacity until 1923. That latter year, Stone became head of litigation at the white shoe (that is, fancy) New York law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell. The next year, Stone, a progressive Republican, was named Attorney General by Calvin Coolidge, who had become President after the death of Warren G. Harding. The next year Coolidge nominated Stone to the Supreme Court.

Stone quickly became one of the dissenters on the Court, often joining Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis D. Brandeis. During FDR's first presidential term (March 1933-January 1937), Stone usually voted to sustain New Deal legislation (some decisions of the Court unanimously held particular New Deal legislation unconstitutional), and when the Court was split, Stone was often in the minority. When the Court "switched" in 1937, Stone found himself in the majority. In 1938, Stone wrote the Court's opinion in US v. Carolene Products, which concerned the constitutionality of governmental regulation of economic matters. The Court readily upheld congressional action, but in footnote 4, joined by a plurality, Stone suggested a two-tiered standard of review of legislation. Economic legislation was to be reviewed deferentially by the Court. Legislation that affected discrete and insular minorities, or which impaired the democratic process itself, would be subject to a greater scrutiny by the Court. This rational basis/strict scrutiny dichotomy is commonplace in today's individual rights cases, and traces back to Stone's footnote 4. However, in Hirabayashi v. US (1943), the Court, in an opinion by Stone, affirmed the constitutionality of civil liberties restrictions on Japanese and Japanese-Americans in the US during World War II.

Between mid-1937 and early 1941, seven new members of the Court were named by FDR. The only remaining holdovers from the pre-1937 Court were Stone and Owen Roberts. In order to present an olive branch to the Republican Party, FDR decided to promote Stone from Associate Justice to Chief Justice after the retirement of Charles Evans Hughes in 1941, even though Stone was nearly 69 years old. Stone remained Chief Justice until his death on April 22, 1946, which is the shortest term as Chief Justice in over 200 years.

As a Chief Justice, Stone found himself with a fractious Court. Although most of its members had been appointed by FDR, they often found themselves at odds with one another. Felix Frankfurter and Robert Jackson detested Hugo Black, and William O. Douglas detested Frankfurter and found common cause with Black. Frank Murphy's abilities were derided by Frankfurter, and Black and Douglas had little respect for Owen Roberts. Stone did a poor job of managing these strong personalities.

In 1899, Stone married Agnes Harvey. They had two sons, and were married until Stone's death in 1946.