Pitney, Mahlon

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Pitney, Mahlon

Mahlon Pitney served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1912 to 1922. A lawyer, legislator, and New Jersey Supreme Court judge before his appointment, Pitney was a judicial conservative who believed in "liberty of contract" and who generally opposed efforts to protect the right of workers to join unions.

Pitney was born on February 5, 1858, in Morristown, New Jersey. His father, Henry Pitney, was a lawyer and state supreme court judge. Pitney graduated from Princeton University in 1879 and then studied law with a lawyer instead of attending law school. He was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1882. He practiced law in Dover, New Jersey, from 1882 to 1889. He returned to Morristown to assume control of his father's firm in 1889, when his father was appointed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Pitney began a brief political career in the 1890s. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1895 as a Republican and served two terms. In 1899 he was elected to the New Jersey Senate, serving as president in 1901. He abandoned the political arena in 1901 when he was appointed to the New Jersey Supreme Court. He served as chancellor, the state's highest judicial post, from 1908 to 1912.

"The Constitutionimposes upon the States no obligation to confer upon those within their jurisdiction either the right of free speech or the right of silence."
—Mahlon Pitney

In 1912 President William Howard Taft appointed Pitney to the U.S. Supreme Court. During his ten years on the court, Pitney wrote many opinions that dealt with unions and business and their regulation by government. Pitney, an economic conservative, was generally hostile to government interference with employers and employees. During the time Pitney was on the court, U.S. labor unions were struggling to survive in a legal environment that favored employers. In Coppage v. Kansas, 236 U.S. 1, 35 S. Ct. 240, 59 L. Ed. 441 (1915), Pitney struck down a Kansas statute that prohibited an employer from using force or coercion to prevent employees from joining a union.

Pitney's hostility to unions and government regulation of business was based on his belief in individualism and unrestricted freedom in the marketplace. He subscribed to the liberty of contract theory that commanded widespread support on the Supreme Court. Pitney believed that liberty of contract was guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provided that no state was to "deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law." Government regulation of work hours and working conditions was unconstitutional because regulation deprived employer and employee of the liberty to negotiate terms of employment. Likewise, unions hurt individualism by insisting on Collective Bargaining.

Pitney applied these beliefs to business as well. He supported antitrust statutes because monopolies, like unions, distorted the marketplace and reduced the ability of individuals and small companies to compete. Most importantly, Pitney supported state Workers' Compensation statutes, which had just been introduced as a way to protect workers hurt on the job. In New York Central Railroad Co. v. White, 243 U.S. 188, 37 S. Ct. 247, 61 L. Ed. 667 (1917), and in several subsequent cases, Pitney ruled that employers were liable for the injuries suffered by their workers during the course of employment. Workers' compensation statutes changed the legal landscape for employers and employees. States created administrative systems that quickly and fairly compensated employees for their injuries. Employers were no longer able to invoke common-law tort rules to avoid liability. Without Pitney's leadership on this issue, the laws might not have survived judicial scrutiny.

Pitney suffered a stroke in August 1922 and resigned from the Court in December. He died on December 9, 1924, in Washington, D.C.

Further readings

Belknap, Michal R. 1986. "Mr. Justice Pitney and Progressivism." Seton Hall Law Review 16 (spring).