Willis Van Devanter (April 17, 1859 – February 8, 1941) was an American lawyer who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1911 to 1937. He was a staunch conservative and was regarded as a part of the Four Horsemen, the conservative block which dominated the Supreme Court during the 1930s.
Willis Van Devanter
|Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States|
January 3, 1911 – June 2, 1937
|Nominated by||William Howard Taft|
|Preceded by||Edward Douglass White|
|Succeeded by||Hugo Black|
|Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit|
February 4, 1903 – December 16, 1910
|Nominated by||Theodore Roosevelt|
|Preceded by||Seat established|
|Succeeded by||Walter Smith|
|Born||April 17, 1859|
Marion, Indiana, U.S.
|Died||February 8, 1941 (aged 81)|
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Resting place||Rock Creek Cemetery|
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Children||Isaac Van Devanter, Winslow Van Devanter|
|Parent(s)||Isaac Van Devanter, Violetta Van Devanter|
|Education||University of Cincinnati (LLB)|
Born in Marion, Indiana, to a family of Dutch Americans, he received a Bachelor of Laws from the Cincinnati Law School in 1881. He was a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and the Knights of Pythias.
In 1884, Van Devanter moved to the Wyoming Territory where he became the city attorney of Cheyenne. He served on a commission to revise the statutes of Wyoming Territory in 1886, and as a member of the territorial legislature in 1888. He also served as an attorney to the Wyoming Stock Growers Association during the 1889–93 Johnson County War, managing to strain the local courts' (and county's) budget and delay trials while his clients and their allies worked to make key witnesses and the gunman unavailable, as well as securing favorable press coverage from the state's most influential papers while threatening to sue the Johnson County paper for slander.
In 1896 Van Devanter represented the state of Wyoming before the U.S. Supreme Court in Ward v. Race Horse 163 U.S. 504 (1896). This involved a state poaching charge for hunting out of season, and its purported conflict with an Indian treaty that allowed the activity. The Native Americans won in the U.S. Federal District Court; the judgment was reversed on appeal to the Supreme Court by a 7–1 majority.
From 1897 to 1903 Van Devanter served in Washington, D.C., as an assistant attorney general, working in the Department of Interior. He was also a professor at The George Washington University Law School from 1897 to 1903.
On February 4, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt nominated Van Devanter to a newly created seat on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on February 18, 1903, and received his commission the same day.
On December 12, 1910, President William Howard Taft nominated Van Devanter as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, to a seat vacated by Edward D. White. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on December 15, 1910, He was sworn into office on January 3, 1911.
On the court, he made his mark in opinions on public lands, Indian questions, water rights, admiralty, jurisdiction, and corporate law, but is best remembered for his opinions defending limited government in the 1920s and 1930s. He served for over twenty-five years, and voted against the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (United States v. Butler), the National Recovery Administration (Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States), federal regulation of labor relations (National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp.), the Railway Pension Act (Railroad Retirement Board v. Alton Railroad), unemployment insurance (Steward Machine Co. v. Davis), and the minimum wage (West Coast Hotel v. Parrish). For his conservatism, he was known as one of the Four Horsemen, along with Pierce Butler, James Clark McReynolds, and George Sutherland; the four would dominate the Supreme Court for over two decades. He was anti-Semitic but less openly so than McReynolds, who refused to interact with or speak to eventual Jewish Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis, Benjamin N. Cardozo, and Felix Frankfurter; Van Devanter's interactions with them were non-fractious. His opinion in United States v. Sandoval (1913) held that because the New Mexico Pueblos were "intellectually and morally inferior" and "easy victims to the evils and debasing influence of intoxicants" they were subject to restrictions on alcohol sales in Indian Country. The decision has since been the basis for Pueblo self-government and protection of tribal lands.
Van Devanter had chronic "pen paralysis", and, as a result, he wrote fewer opinions than the other justices, averaging three a term during his last decade on the Court. He rarely wrote on constitutional issues. However, he was widely respected as an expert on judicial procedure. In December 1921, Chief Justice Taft appointed him, along with Justices McReynolds and Sutherland, to draw up a proposal that would amend the nation's Judicial code and which would define further the jurisdiction of the nation's circuit courts. Known widely as "the Judges' Bill", it retained mandatory jurisdiction over cases that raised questions regarding federal jurisdiction. It called for the circuit courts of appeal to have appellate jurisdiction to review "by appeal or writ of error" final decisions in the district courts, as well as for the district courts for Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, China, the Virgin Islands and the Canal Zone. The circuit courts were also empowered to modify, enforce or set aside orders of the Federal Communications Commission, the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Trade Commission. The proposed bill further provided that "a final judgment or decree in any suit in the highest court of a state in which a decision in the suit could be had, where is drawn in question the validity of a treaty or statute of the United States may be reviewed by the Supreme Court on a writ of error." Lastly, cases involving final decrees which brought into question the validity of a wide range of Federal or state treaties would come to the Court by certiorari. Four justices would be required to vote affirmatively to accept petitions, which meant that the Court's agenda would now be enrolled by "judicial review." The Chief Justice, together with the three Justices, made repeated trips to Congress, and in 1925, after two years of debate, the new Code was passed.
Van Devanter retired from the Supreme Court on June 2, 1937, after Congress voted full pay for justices over seventy who retired. He acknowledged that he might have retired five years earlier due to illness, if not for his concern about New Deal legislation, and that he depended upon his salary. In 1932, five years prior to Van Devanter's retirement, Congress had halved Supreme Court pensions. Congress had temporarily restored them to full pay in February 1933, only to halve them again next month by the Economy Act. He was the last serving Supreme Court Justice appointed by President Taft. Van Devanter was replaced by Hugo Black.
Van Devanter died in Washington, D.C. on February 8, 1941, and is buried there in Rock Creek Cemetery. His personal and judicial papers are archived at the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.
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