Hughes, Charles Evans


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Hughes, Charles Evans

The long public career of Charles Evans Hughes prepared him to be a powerful chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Hughes was a legal and political dynamo. Beginning as a lawyer and law professor in New York in the 1880s, he became known nationally for his role in investigating power utilities and the insurance industry. He went on to a career in national and international affairs—first as a two-term governor of New York, second as a Republican nominee for president, and third as Secretary of State. He was twice appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, serving as an associate justice from 1910 to 1916 and as chief justice from 1930 to 1941. His intellectual vigor and strong hand guided the Court through the critical period of the New Deal era when it made significant changes in its views on the constitutional limits on government power.

Hughes was born April 11, 1862, in Glen Falls, New York. Educated at Columbia University Law School, he spent his twenties and thirties in private practice and teaching law at Columbia and Cornell Universities. His expertise was in Commercial Law and by the time he was in his forties he had built a considerable reputation in that area. The New York state legislature chose him in 1905 to lead public investigations of the gas and electrical utilities in New York City and to probe the state's insurance industry. His work not only resulted in ground-breaking regulatory plans, later highly influential across the United States, but also catapulted Hughes into a political career. He immediately ran for governor of New York and twice won election to that office as a politician known for independence of mind and commitment to administrative reform. In 1910, his second term as governor had not yet expired when he stepped down and accepted President William Howard Taft's appointment to the Supreme Court.

This move characterized the lifelong tension between Hughes's attractions to the legal and political spheres. He left public office to join the Court; later he would leave the Court to run for office again, then return to the Court as chief justice. In his nearly seven years on the Court as an associate justice, he displayed a flexibility of thought that led him to side at times with liberals and at times with the conservative majority. His most significant opinions turned on the issue of federal power. In particular, these opinions weighed the extent to which the Commerce Clause of the Constitution gave the federal government authority to regulate the national economy. The opinions were delivered in the Minnesota and Shreveport Rate cases, in which the Court's decisions laid the groundwork for the expansion of federal regulation in the years to come (Simpson v. Shepard, 230 U.S. 352, 33 S. Ct. 729, 57 L. Ed. 1511 [1913]; Houston, East & West Texas Railway Co. v. United States, 234 U.S. 342, 34 S. Ct. 833, 58 L. Ed. 1341 [1914]).

The middle years of Hughes's career saw tumultuous change. In 1916, he stepped down from the Court to return to politics. Although he had not actively sought the Republican Party's nomination for president, the party drafted him, and he reluctantly agreed to run against woodrow wilson. Despite a hard-fought campaign, Hughes lost the close election and returned to private practice. His respite from public service was brief. In 1921, President warren g. harding appointed Hughes secretary of state, a difficult position because of the challenges facing the United States in the aftermath of World War I: the war debt, reparations, the newly established Soviet Union, and especially relations with East Asia. Naval disarmament ranked high among Hughes's concerns. In 1921 and 1922, he organized the Washington Conference, which for nearly a decade curbed naval growth and brought stability to the western Pacific.

The final chapter in Hughes's career returned him to the Supreme Court. Hughes served as secretary of state to Harding's successor, Calvin Coolidge, then resigned in 1925 to work in private practice. Between that and his next stint on the Court, he published a book-length work entitled The Supreme Court of the United States: Its Foundation, Methods, and Achievements: An Interpretation (1928, reprinted 2000). In 1930, President herbert hoover nominated him for chief justice. Bitter opponents voiced criticism of Hughes's political career and his resignation but failed to block his appointment in a confirmation vote of 52–26. At age 68, Hughes became the oldest man ever to be chosen chief justice.

The Hughes Court sat during a controversial period in U.S. legal history. The Depression years had brought misery and a radical federal response. President franklin d. roosevelt's economic recovery plans, known collectively as the New Deal, met opposition in Congress and from the justices of the Court. Several pieces of New Deal legislation faced constitutional tests and failed. After unanimously holding unconstitutional the national industrial recovery act (48 Stat. 195 [1933]) in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495, 55 S. Ct. 837, 79 L. Ed. 1570 (1935), the Court provoked a battle with the frustrated president. Roosevelt proposed an increase to the number of seats on the Court, hoping to then pack the Court with justices favorable to his views. Hughes wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee in a move to help thwart Roosevelt's plan.

"When we lose the right to be different, we lose the privilege to be free."
—Charles Evans Hughes

By taking a largely dim view of both federal and state regulatory power, the Hughes Court differed little from its conservative predecessors. In 1937, this changed dramatically. In upholding the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq., Hughes wrote a landmark opinion that greatly strengthened the labor movement (nlrb v. jones & laughlin steel corp., 301 U.S. 1, 57 S. Ct. 615, 81 L. Ed. 893 [1937]). Also that year the Court upheld a state Minimum Wage law, in west coast hotel v. parrish, 300 U.S. 379, 57 S. Ct. 578, 81 L. Ed. 703. The Parrish decision was a striking departure from rulings of previous decades. Only 15 years earlier, for example, the Court had refused to force employers of adult women to pay a minimum wage, viewing such a requirement as an unconstitutional infringement of the liberty of contract. The 1937 decisions together have been called a constitutional revolution because they marked a great change in Jurisprudence that liberalized the Court's view of government power.

When Hughes retired at last in 1941, at age 80, he had made a powerful impression on the law and on the Court. During his tenure as chief justice, he had shown the same flexibility of mind that marked his period as an associate justice: siding alternately with liberal and conservative colleagues, he often cast the swing vote. He had clearly run the Court with a strong hand, not only in leading the discussion but frequently in persuading justices to vote with him. Justice Felix Frankfurter, who served under Hughes, likened him to the conductor of an orchestra: "He took his seat at the center of the Court with a mastery, I suspect, unparalleled in the history of the Court."

Hughes died August 27, 1948, in Osterville, Massachusetts. Succeeding generations have compared his bold leadership to that of Chief Justice Earl Warren, who headed the Court two decades later.

Further readings

Hall, Timothy L. 2001. Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Facts on File.

Perkins, Dexter. 1978. Charles Evans Hughes and American Democratic Statesmanship. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.

Schwartz, Bernard. 1995. "Supreme Court Superstars: The Ten Greatest Justices." Tulsa Law Journal 31 (fall).

Cross-references

Labor Law; Labor Union; Supreme Court of the United States.