About Charles Evans Whittaker
Charles Evans Whittaker (February 22, 1901 – November 26, 1973) was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1957 to 1962.
Whittaker was born on a farm near Troy, Kansas, and attended school until he dropped out in the ninth grade. He spent the next two years hunting, trapping and farming, but developed an interest in law by reading newspaper articles about criminal trials. He applied to the Kansas City School of Law (currently the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law) and gained admission with the condition that he first acquire a high school education. He spent two years working, and taking high school courses from a private tutor before enrolling. While he was a student at the school, from 1922 to 1924, Harry S. Truman was a classmate. He received his law degree in 1924.
Whittaker joined the law firm of Watson, Ess, Marshall & Enggas in Kansas City, Missouri and built up a practice in corporate law. He had close ties to the Republican party. This led to his first appointment as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri on July 8, 1954. He then was nominated to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on June 5, 1956.
Whittaker developed a good reputation as a judge and less than a year after being appointed to the court of appeals he was nominated Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by President Dwight Eisenhower, taking the oath on March 25, 1957. Whittaker thus became the first person to serve as a judge of a district court, a court of appeals, and then the Supreme Court. (Justice Samuel Blatchford also served at all three levels of the federal judiciary, but the court system was configured slightly differently at that time.)
On the closely divided Supreme Court, Whittaker was a swing vote. According to Professor Howard Ball, Whittaker was an "extremely weak, vacillating" justice who was "courted by the two cliques on the Court because his vote was generally up in the air and typically went to the group that made the last, but not necessarily the best, argument."
Whittaker failed to develop a consistent judicial philosophy, and reportedly felt himself not as qualified as some of the other members of the court. After agonizing deeply for months over his vote in Baker v. Carr, an important reapportionment case, Whittaker suffered a nervous breakdown in the spring of 1962. At the behest of Chief Justice Earl Warren, Whittaker retired from the Court effective March 31, 1962, citing exhaustion from the workload.
Effective September 30, 1965, Whittaker resigned his position as a retired Justice in order to become chief counsel to General Motors. He also became a resolute critic of the Warren Court as well as the Civil Rights Movement, decrying the civil disobedience of the type practiced by Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers as lawless. Like many conservatives, he criticized the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as unconstitutional.
Whittaker died in 1973 at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City of a ruptured abdominal aneurysm. He was survived by his wife, Winifred, and three sons, Dr. Charles Keith Whittaker, Kent E. Whittaker, and Gary T. Whittaker.
The federal courthouse in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, which houses the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri, is named in memory of Whittaker.