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Supreme Court Justices

George Sutherland (1862-1942)

George Sutherland was born in England on March 15, 1862. His parents moved to Utah when Sutherland was a child. After attending Brigham Young Academy, Sutherland attended the University of Michigan Law School, where he was taught by the 19th century constitutional law scholar Thomas M. Cooley. Sutherland returned to Utah in 1883, and practiced law first with his father in Provo, and then with others in Salt Lake City. Sutherland was a member of Utah's territorial legislature, and a state senator from 1896-1900. He then was elected to the House of Representatives. In 1905, Sutherland was appointed by the Utah legislature to the Senate, where he served two terms. In 1922, President Warren G. Harding nominated Sutherland to the Supreme Court. Sutherland strongly believed individuals possessed natural rights with which the state was forbidden to interfere, but his opinions suggest an inconsistent position on these matters.

For example, Sutherland dissented without opinion in Meyer v. Nebraska, which held that the state was not permitted to bar the teaching of German in private schools. The Court relied on the right of parents to raise their children largely as they chose, a classic effort at using natural rights views to declare unconstitutional state regulation. Because he did not write an opinion, we do not know why Sutherland dissented in Meyer. The only other dissenter was Oliver Wendell Holmes, who regularly sustained such state legislation. That same year, Sutherland wrote the opinion of the Court in Adkins v. Children's Hospital, which held unconstitutional a law establishing a minimum wage for women in the District of Columbia (a law which had been upheld in Muller v. Oregon). The opinion in Adkins relies on a notion of natural rights regarding "liberty of contract." While a legislator in Utah, Sutherland supported a maximum hour regulation for miners, which the Court upheld in Holden v. Hardy (1898). For Sutherland, there existed a distinction between minimum wages and maximum hours, a distinction rejected by most. In 1925, Sutherland joined the unanimous opinion of the Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, which was based on the principles stated in Meyer. He did not write an opinion explaining whether he was merely acquiescing to the precedent created by his brethren in Meyer, or for some other reason. Sutherland also wrote the Court's opinion permitted zoning regulations in Euclid v. Ambler Realty against a property right challenge in 1926. He dissented in Home Building & Loan Ass'n v. Blaisdell (1934), which permitted Minnesota to adopt a mortgage redemption moratorium period during the Great Depression, on property rights grounds.

During the Great Depression, Sutherland was considered the leader of the Four Horsemen (Pierce Butler, James McReynolds and Willis Van Devanter were the others) preventing implementation of the New Deal during the mid-1930s. The demonizing of these members of the Court (the legendary Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were Death, Famine, Pestilence and War) was part of the Progressive effort to reverse the decisions of this "anti-New Deal" Court. Even though FDR's court-packing plan (see bio for Charles Evans Hughes) failed to pass, the Court did change its mind, and the members of the Court opposed to the New Deal began to leave the Court after the constitutional crisis of 1937. Sutherland was a bright, hard-working judge whose fate was to be linked to other Justices whose reactionary politics or racist beliefs are anathema.

Sutherland retired from the Court on January 17, 1938. He died on July 18, 1942.