About George Shiras, III, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
George Shiras, Jr. (January 26, 1832 – August 2, 1924) was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States who was nominated to the Court by Republican President Benjamin Harrison. At that time, he had 37 years of private legal practice, but had never judged a case. Shiras was the only Supreme Court justice, as of 2011, to have no record of public (political, governmental or judicial) service.
Shiras was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania January 26, 1832. He attended Ohio University and graduated from Yale College, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1853. He began law school at Yale, but left before earning a law degree He finished his training by reading law at a law office, then practiced law in Dubuque, Iowa from 1855 to 1858, and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from 1858 to 1892.
On July 19, 1892, Shiras was nominated by President Harrison to a Supreme Court seat vacated by Joseph P. Bradley. Shiras was confirmed by the United States Senate on July 26, 1892, and received his commission the same day.
Although Shiras sat on the Court for more than 10 years authoring 253 majority decisions and 14 dissents, he is noted for his votes on just two landmark cases, Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co. (1895), and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). He sided with the majority in the 5-4 decision in Pollock to strike down the Income Tax Act of 1894 as unconstitutional. Some historians believe Shiras was the pivotal Justice who switched his vote, while other historians suspect that it was either Justice Horace Gray or Justice David Brewer. Regardless, the ruling in Pollock led to the need for a constitutional amendment to impose a federal income tax, and in 1913, Sixteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. Shiras also voted with the 7-1 majority in the infamous case Plessy v. Ferguson, a case which upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the doctrine of separate but equal, and which was not overruled until 1954.
Shiras retired from the bench on February 23, 1903, and remained in retirement until his death, in Pittsburgh, in 1924.