HomeConstitutional LawLegal HistoryLegal EthicsEvidenceProfessional ResponsibilityContact MeSearch


Supreme Court Justices

Willis Van Devanter (1859-1941)

Willis Van Devanter was born in Indiana on April 17, 1859. In 1881, he graduated from the law school of the University of Cincinnati, and returned to his hometown to practice law with his father. After several years there, Van Devanter moved to the mountain west, to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Van Devanter was a member of the Wyoming Territory legislature, and was also a member of the Territory's Supreme Court. Van Devanter returned to private practice in 1890, and worked for railroads, among other clients. In 1897, he worked as an attorney at the Department of the Interior. President Teddy Roosevelt appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in 1903, and in 1910, Van Devanter was nominated to take the seat of Associate Justice Edward D. White, who replaced the deceased Melville Fuller as Chief Justice. Van Devanter was firmly opposed to increased governmental regulation of the economy. He interpreted the interstate commerce clause narrowly, thus limiting Congress's ability to regulate issues such as child labor or the use of yellow dog provisions in employment contracts. Additionally, Van Devanter favored an expansive interpretation of the due process clause of the 14th amendment, which thus restricted the ability of states to regulate the maximum hours of work, and made impermissible the creation of a minimum wage. By the mid-1930s, Van Devanter, along with Justices James McReynolds, Pierce Butler, and George Sutherland, were perceived as obstacles to FDR's New Deal. When joined by Justice Owen Roberts, a majority existed to declare unconstitutional New Deal legislation. When FDR announced his court reorganization plan on February 5, 1937, his announced reason for adding up to six members to the Court (1 for each Justice over the age of 70 who had failed to retire or resign by then, up to a maximum of 6 justices) was that the Court was behind on its work. On March 21, shortly before the Court announced decisions that indicated a "switch" in their interpretation of the Constitution, the Court's Chief Justice, Charles Evans Hughes, sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee signed by himself and Justices Van Devanter and Brandeis indicating that the Court was not behind in its work. In mid-May, after the Court had clearly altered course, Justice Van Devanter announced his retirement, which he had apparently put off until he was pensioned off by Congress. He retired on June 2, 1937.

Van Devanter did not write many opinions, and it has been suggested that he suffered from writer's block. His influence was in his knowledge of much arcane federal law, which was tapped by other Justices in cases before the Court. Van Devanter died on February 8, 1941.