Sanford, Edward Terry


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Sanford, Edward Terry

An important influence on the development of civil liberties, Edward Terry Sanford served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1923 to 1930. Sanford was a native of Tennessee with a cosmopolitan education, and before serving on the Court, he had a private law practice, served in the Justice Department, and was a federal district judge in his home state for fourteen years. While on the Court, Sanford's views were largely moderate, and in his lifetime, he was overshadowed by his highly visible contemporaries. Nonetheless, Sanford's opinions on civil liberties helped advance the guarantees of the Bill of Rights: in two major opinions delivered in the 1920s, he laid the groundwork for modern Supreme Court decisions that restrict the power of states to limit First Amendment rights to Freedom of Speech.

Sanford was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on July 23, 1865, the son of a lumber and construction millionaire. He earned four degrees from the University of Tennessee and Harvard, and studied languages in France and Germany. At Harvard Law School, he distinguished himself as the editor of the Harvard Law Review and graduated magna cum laude. He began practicing law in Tennessee in the 1890s. He then lectured in law at the University of Tennessee from 1898 to 1906 before moving to Washington, D.C., for his first federal job.

Sanford's federal law career began in prosecution and rapidly took him to the federal bench. He joined the Justice Department in 1906 as a special assistant prosecutor, and a year later he was made an assistant attorney general. By 1908 Sanford returned to Tennessee as a federal district judge, a position he held until 1923. His specialties were Bankruptcy and Equity cases. On the bench he developed a reputation for open-mindedness, fairness, and leniency, at times reversing his own decisions. He was highly driven and nervously energetic, and would pace and chain-smoke in his chambers while considering his busy docket.

In 1923 Sanford's nomination to the Supreme Court came at the behest of his friends, Chief Justice William Howard Taft and Attorney General harry m. daugherty. The two men convinced President warren g. harding of Sanford's breadth of education and varied experience, which included service on the League of Nations. The nomination succeeded easily in the Senate, and Sanford sat on the Court for seven years until his death in 1930. He wrote 130 opinions, many of them addressing issues related to government, business, and especially bankruptcy.

"We may and do assume that the freedom of speech and of the press … are among the fundamental personal rights and liberties protected … from impairment by the States."
—Edward T. Sanford

Although neglected by history because of the accomplishments of his celebrated contemporaries, Sanford made a major contribution in the area of civil liberties. In particular, he helped develop the so-called incorporation doctrine—the Supreme Court's view that the Bill of Rights applies not only to the federal government but also, in large part, to the states. During much of the nineteenth century, states conferred fewer rights upon their citizens than those extended by the federal Bill of Rights, even after ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. With the intervention of the Supreme Court, this began to change at the turn of the century. In the mid-1920s, Sanford helped effect the change in two important cases concerning freedom of speech.

The first case dealt with a state's power to control the press. In gitlow v. new york, 268 U.S. 652, 45 S. Ct. 625, 69 L. Ed. 1138 (1925), the Court considered New York's conviction of a leftist author under the state's anarchy law of 1902. The broader question for the Court was, Should the First Amendment be extended to the states? Sanford's opinion upheld the conviction because, in the Court's view, states should be free to prosecute citizens who advocate violent overthrow of government. But on the broader question of the Bill of Rights, Sanford wrote that the First Amendment applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Gitlow served as the foundation for subsequent cases in which the Court would strike down state laws that violated the First Amendment. In 1927 the Court upheld a defense based on the doctrine enunciated in Gitlow in Fiske v. Kansas, 274 U.S. 380, 47 S. Ct. 655, 71 L. Ed. 1108. In his opinion, Sanford underscored that states must guarantee First Amendment rights.

Throughout his tenure on the Court, Sanford voted consistently with Chief Justice Taft. Sanford died at age sixty-four on March 8, 1930—the same day that Taft died.

Further readings

Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. 1995. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions. New York: Chelsea House.