Brown, Henry Billings

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Brown, Henry Billings

Henry Billings Brown was an associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1890 to 1906.

Born to a wealthy family on March 2, 1836, at South Lee, Massachusetts, Brown attended private schools as a child. His father, a prosperous merchant and manufacturer, saw to it that Brown attended Yale University, where he graduated in 1856. After graduation, Brown traveled in Europe for a year, then returned to study law at Yale and Harvard. In 1859 he moved to Detroit and in 1860 he was admitted to the Wayne County bar in Michigan.

Brown was appointed deputy U.S. marshal in 1861. Detroit at that time was a bustling Great Lakes port, and he became involved in the many commercial and maritime legal disputes that arose. Two years later, he was named assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. He held this post until May 1868 when he was appointed to fill a short-term vacancy on the Wayne County Circuit Court. Recognized as the leading authority on admiralty law and maritime law, Brown lectured on the subjects at the University of Michigan Law School, and compiled and published Brown's Admiralty Reports. In 1890 President benjamin h. harrison appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court. As a Court member, Brown gained a reputation as a moderate but was a staunch defender of property rights. He was reluctant to extend constitutional protection in Criminal Procedure and civil liberties disputes, and concurred with the majority in lochner v. new york, 198 U.S. 45, 25 S. Ct. 539, 49 L. Ed. 937 (1905), which struck down a statute calling for maximum work hours for bakers. Lochner was consistent with Brown's unwillingness to allow governmental interference with contractual freedom.

Brown also concurred in the so-called Insular cases, which held that residents of U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico are not entitled to constitutional protections. However, he departed somewhat from his usual strict adherence to judicial precedence when he voted to uphold the federal Income Tax in pollock v. farmers' loan & trust co., 158 U.S. 601, 15 S. Ct. 912, 39 L. Ed. 1108 (1895).

Brown is perhaps best remembered as the author of the Court's opinion in plessy v. ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256, the 1896 decision upholding state-mandated racial Segregation in railway cars as long as the accommodations were equal. The "separate-but-equal" doctrine pronounced in Plessy became the constitutional foundation for Jim Crow Laws and racial discrimination, particularly in the South. Later opinion condemned the Plessy decision, and indeed Brown has often been criticized for his role in it; however, the decision must be viewed in the historical context in which it was written. Also, the language in Plessy, requiring equality of treatment, later became the basis of legal challenges to segregation laws.

"The underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument [rests] in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority."
—Henry Brown

Failing eyesight forced Brown to retire from the bench in 1906. He died in 1913.

Further readings

Schwartz, Bernard. 1993. A History of the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Tribe, Laurence H. 1985. God Save This Honorable Court. New York: Random House.


Labor Law; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas; Equal Protection.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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