Willis Van Devanter (1859 - 1941)

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Nicknames: "One of the "Four Horsemen" of the Supreme Court"
Birthdate:
Birthplace: Marion, Grant, Indiana, United States
Death: Died in Washington, District of Columbia, United States
Occupation: U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court
Managed by: Frank Vandeventer
Last Updated:

About Willis Van Devanter

Willis Van Devanter was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, January 3, 1911 to June 2, 1937.

Early Life

Born in Marion, Indiana, Van Devanter received a LL.B. from the Cincinnati Law School in 1881. He was a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and the Knights of Pythias. He was also a Freemason.

After three years private practice in Marion, he moved to the Wyoming Territory where he served as city attorney of Cheyenne, Wyoming and a member of the territorial legislature. At the age of 30, he was appointed chief judge of the territorial court. Upon statehood, he served as Chief Justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court for four days, then again took up private practice for seven years, including much work for the Union Pacific and other railroads.

In 1896, he represented the state of Wyoming before the U.S. Supreme Court in Ward v. Race Horse 163 U.S. 504 (1896). In that same year, during the summer and fall, he was afflicted with typhoid fever. From then through 1900, he served in Washington, D.C. as an assistant attorney general, working in the Department of Interior. He was also a professor at the Columbian University School of Law (now The George Washington University Law School) from 1897 to 1903.

Federal Service

On February 4, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt nominated Van Devanter to a seat on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals created by 32 Stat. 791. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on February 18, 1903, and received his commission the same day.

In 1910, William Howard Taft elevated him to the Supreme Court. Taft nominated Van Devanter on December 12, 1910 to the Associate Justice seat vacated by Edward D. White. Three days later, Van Devanter was confirmed by the United States Senate on December 15, 1910, and received his commission the following day. Van Devanter assumed senior status on June 2, 1937, one of the first Supreme Court Justices to do so. Although no longer on the Court at that point, he technically remained available to hear cases until his death.

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 25 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.

Van Devanter had chronic writer's block -- even characterized as "pen paralysis" -- and, as a result, he wrote fewer opinions than any of his brethren, 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. He was largely responsible for the 1925 legislation that allowed the Supreme Court greater control over its own docket through the certiorari procedure.

Retirement & Death

Van Devanter retired as a Supreme Court Justice on May 18, 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 for sustenance. There has, however, been considerable speculation that Van Devanter actually resigned due to fall-out from Roosevelt's "court-packing" attempt; cf. Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937. Van Devanter was replaced by Justice Hugo Black, appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

He died in Washington, D.C., and was buried there in Rock Creek Cemetery. His gravesite is marked by "a stark 'VAN DEVANTER' — nothing else" which tops the family plot.

Van Devanter's personal and judicial papers are archived at the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, where they are available for research. -------------------- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willis_Van_Devanter

Willis Van Devanter (April 17, 1859 – February 8, 1941) was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, January 3, 1911 to June 2, 1937.

Early life and career

Born in Marion, Indiana, he received a LL.B. from the Cincinnati Law School in 1881. He is a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and the Knights of Pythias. After three years private practice in Marion, he moved to the Wyoming Territory where he served as city attorney of Cheyenne, Wyoming and a member of the territorial legislature. At the age of 30, he was appointed chief judge of the territorial court. Upon statehood, he served as Chief Justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court for four days,. and again took up private practice for seven years, including much work for the Union Pacific and other railroads.

In 1896 he represented the state of Wyoming before the U.S. Supreme Court in Ward v. Race Horse 163 U.S. 504 (1896). At issue was 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 revised on appeal to the Supreme Court by a 7-1 majority.

In the summer and fall of 1896, Van Devanter was afflicted with typhoid fever. From 1896 to 1900 he served in Washington, D.C. as an assistant attorney general, working in the Department of Interior. He was also a professor at the Columbian University School of Law (now The George Washington University Law School) from 1897 to 1903.

Federal judicial service

On February 4, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt nominated Van Devanter to a seat on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals created by 32 Stat. 791. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on February 18, 1903, and received his commission the same day.

In 1910, William Howard Taft elevated him to the Supreme Court. Taft nominated Van Devanter on December 12, 1910 to the Associate Justice seat vacated by Edward D. White. Three days later, Van Devanter was confirmed by the United States Senate on December 15, 1910, and received his commission the following day. Van Devanter assumed senior status on June 2, 1937, one of the first Supreme Court Justices to do so. Although no longer on the Court at that point, he technically remained available to hear cases until his death.

Supreme Court tenure

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.

Van Devanter had chronic writer's block -- even characterized as "pen paralysis" -- and, as a result, he wrote fewer opinions than any of his brethren, 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. He was largely responsible for the 1925 legislation that allowed the Supreme Court greater control over its own docket through the certiorari procedure.

Retirement and final years

Van Devanter retired as a Supreme Court Justice on May 18, 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 for sustenance. There has, however, been considerable speculation that Van Devanter actually resigned due to fall-out from Roosevelt's "court-packing" attempt; cf. Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937. Van Devanter was replaced by Justice Hugo Black, appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

He died in Washington, DC, and was buried there in Rock Creek Cemetery. His gravesite is marked by "a stark 'VAN DEVANTER' — nothing else" which tops the family plot.

Van Devanter's personal and judicial papers are archived at the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, where they are available for research.

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Willis Van Devanter, Associate Justice of the U.S.Supreme Court's Timeline

1859
April 17, 1859
Marion, Grant, Indiana, United States
1885
July 13, 1885
Age 26
Cheyenne, WY
1896
April, 1896
Age 36
1941
February 8, 1941
Age 81
Washington, District of Columbia, United States
????
????
- 1881
Cincinnati, Ohio, United States
????
Washington, District of Columbia, United States