Stewart, Potter

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Stewart, Potter

As an associate justice from 1958 to 1981, Potter Stewart charted a middle course during a vigorous era on the U.S. Supreme Court. Before his appointment to the Court by President dwight d. eisenhower, Stewart practiced law, served in local government in his native Cincinnati, Ohio, and sat on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals from 1954 to 1958. He joined the Supreme Court during a period when the Court was changing the social and political landscape by extending Civil Rights and liberties under Chief Justice Earl Warren, yet Stewart remained a moderate during his twenty-three-year tenure. Pragmatism, unpredictability, and plainspoken opinions were his hallmarks. His penchant for witty phrases made him highly quotable, but his inconsistent voting record left only an ambiguous mark on U.S. law. At age forty-three, he was among the youngest appointees to the Court and, at age sixty-six, also one of the youngest justices to retire from it.

Born in Jackson, Michigan, on January 23, 1915, Stewart came from old money and a family steeped in law and politics. Educated at University School, Hotchkiss, as well as at Yale, "Swift justice demands more than just swiftness."
—Potterm Stewart

Cambridge, and Yale Law School, he earned his law degree from Yale in 1941. A stint on Wall Street followed. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and returned to Ohio after the war. After working for a large law firm in his home state, Stewart briefly followed his father's footsteps into politics. James Garfield. Stewart had been mayor of Cincinnati and a justice of the Ohio Supreme Court. Potter Stewart served on the city council and as vice mayor, but he soon abandoned political life to build his own legal practice. In 1954 President Eisenhower appointed Stewart to the federal bench. Stewart's high profile in the Ohio bar made him an attractive candidate for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, where he served for the next four years. He was widely respected for his competence and efficiency as an appellate judge, and Eisenhower returned to him in 1958 when a seat opened on the Supreme Court. Although southern senators who disliked his embrace of School Desegregation offered scattered opposition to his appointment, the nomination easily succeeded.

On the Supreme Court, Stewart was a moderate justice. He was criticized for indecision, chiefly because he was often the unpredictable swing vote in cases that pitted the Warren Court's activist and judicial restraint blocs against each other. Stewart, however, followed his instincts on the Court without obvious resort to ideology or doctrine. To the question of whether he was liberal or conservative, he replied, "I am a lawyer," explaining that the labels had little value for him in the political sphere and even less in law. Stewart's approach in his opinions is notable for its plain-edged pragmatism. He blasted a state's anti-contraception laws as "uncommonly silly" in Griswold v. Connecticut (381 U.S. 479, 85 S. Ct. 1678, 14 L. Ed. 2d [1965]), and in another case, he wrote of Obscenity, stating, "I know it when I see it" (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 84 S. Ct. 1676, 12 L. Ed. 2d 793 [1964]).

In the arena of civil rights and liberties, Stewart's moderate outlook clearly revealed itself. He sided with claimants in 52 percent of these cases. Among his most notable decisions in favor of civil liberties was Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., 392 U.S. 409, 88 S. Ct. 2186, 20 L. Ed. 2d 1189 (1968), in which the Warren Court upheld measures that protected African Americans against discrimination in housing. Stewart's pragmatism did not allow for subjectivity, however. Although he regarded Connecticut's ban on the use of contraceptives as silly, he found the law constitutional and dissented from the majority in Griswold v. Connecticut. He maintained his moderate outlook in his later years on the Court. He agreed with the majority's expansion of a right to privacy in the landmark Abortion case, roe v. wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973), but he also attacked the Court's tendency to invalidate any state law it found unwise.

Stewart's legacy on the Court defies easy categorization. At best he is remembered for his pragmatism and at worst for leaving a less than cohesive body of opinions. He retired from the Court in 1981 and died in Hanover, New Hampshire, on December 7, 1985.

Further readings

Amar, Vikram David. 1999. "From Watergate to Ken Starr: Potter Stewart's 'Or of the Press' a Quarter Century Later." Hastings Law Journal 50 (April).

Jacobsen, Joel. 2002. "Remembered Justice: The Backround, Early Career and Judicial Appointments of Justice Potter Stewart." Akron Law Review 35 (winter).

Schwartz, Bernard. 1990. The Ascent of Pragmatism: The Burger Court in Action. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
But in what would become the crucial opinions, Potter Stewart and Byron White focused on the rarity of death sentences.
Connecticut (1965), a phrase which Justice Potter Stewart used to describe a statute prohibiting contraception, even by married couples.
First, Blackmun's Flood files contain two pieces of correspondence with Justice Potter Stewart which, taken together, reveal the logistical impossibility of a circulated draft predating the "5/5/72" "1st draft" in the papers of Douglas, Brennan, and Marshall.
The most striking, and famous, statement produced during the trial belongs to the famous Justice Potter Stewart. "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so," he wrote.
As Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart famously wrote about the difficulty of defining obscenity, "I know it when I see it." Likewise, we do not need to agree on a theory of justice to be revolted by injustice.
In 1980, when I clerked at the Court, the justices were, roughly from left to right, Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, Byron White, John Paul Stevens, Lewis Powell, Potter Stewart, Warren Burger, and William Rehnquist.
Because of obstacles created by well-meaning but short-sighted judges such as Potter Stewart (O'Connor v.
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once remarked about obscenity, "I know it when I see it." Is that the standard by which the government evaluates whether churches' political activity violates IRS regulations and costs them their tax-exempt status (or, more often, a monetary fine)?
Documenting this trend was sort of like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of obscenity: I'd know it when I saw it.
Justice Potter Stewart stated this trade-off well in a concurring opinion in the Pentagon Papers case 35 years ago.
To describe American capital punishment today, Dow appropriates Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's observation in Furman that a capital conviction was like "being struck by lightning." Dow writes, "Lightning is still striking, but few people seem to care."
Justice Potter Stewart asked, "What should we do?" if the Court found "something there that absolutely convinces us that its disclosure would result in the sentencing to death of a hundred young men" who were American soldiers captured by the Viet Cong.