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Four Justices Who Stood for Justice

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.


“We want a Supreme Court,” declared President Franklin Roosevelt in March 1937, “which will do justice under the Constitution — not over it. In our courts, we want a government of laws and not of men.”

A month earlier, the very same FDR announced his plan to “pack” the Supreme Court with enough additional justices to accomplish precisely the opposite. The last thing FDR wanted was a court that defended the Constitution; he preferred one that would meekly sanctify the centralizing nonsense of his New Deal.

Four justices in particular drew FDR’s wrath in the 1930s. They did the job they were sworn to do: uphold the Constitution as it was written against all attempts to subvert it or the liberties of the people it protected. They were respected legal scholars of the first order. Unlike Roosevelt, they didn’t think it was their duty to torture the Constitution until it confessed to federal powers never dreamed of by those who designed it. Power and political expediency were not among their priorities. These four heroes were George Sutherland, Willis Van Devanter, James Clark McReynolds, and Pierce Butler.

In few law schools today are these four defended as heroes. They are, in fact, commonly vilified as legal Neanderthals who stood in the way of FDR’s vast expansion of federal power to deal with the Great Depression.

Unlike FDR, these four justices didn’t think it was their duty to torture the Constitution until it confessed to federal powers never dreamed of by those who designed it.

Progressive intellectuals in the 1930s labeled them with the epithet “the Four Horsemen” — comparing them to the biblical harbingers of the Apocalypse. But I count…

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