Whittaker, Charles Evans

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Whittaker, Charles Evans

Charles Evans Whittaker served as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1957 to 1962. The Missouri-born Whittaker practiced law for thirty years before being appointed to the federal bench in 1954. He served on the U.S. District Court in Missouri until 1957, when President dwight d. eisenhower nominated him for a position on the Supreme Court. His appointment and service have been the subjects of caustic commentary, for Whittaker was not cut out for the duties of the higher court: he served only five years before retiring in a state of physical exhaustion.

Born on February 22, 1901, in Troy, Kansas, Whittaker was the son of farmers. As a teenager, he knew that he wanted to be a lawyer: the ambitious high school student enrolled in law school during his senior year. Graduating in 1923 from the University of Kansas City Law School, where he was recognized for his talents as an orator, he passed the state bar and immediately began practicing for the law firm of Watson, Gage, & Ess. He litigated cases for the same Missouri firm for three decades.

Unlike countless other lawyers who used political careers to gain entry to the judiciary, Whittaker was plucked from relative obscurity. In fact, he generally avoided politics. He had a modest reputation in his home state for his work in corporate law and on the state bar, and this reputation attracted the attention of U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell, who selected him for the U.S. District Court in Missouri. Whittaker presided as a judge on the court from 1954 to 1956.

During this period, Whittaker displayed a lack of appreciation for certain constitutional rights. In 1955 he heard Davis v. University of Kansas City, 129 F. Supp. 716 (W.D. Mo. 1955), a lawsuit brought by a professor claiming he had been unfairly dismissed from the University of Kansas City for refusing to tell a Senate subcommittee whether or not he was a Communist. Such cases were typical in the Cold War era, as was Whittaker's dismissal of the claim. But the judge's outburst from the bench was not: he announced that the public should not tolerate teachers who belong to a "declared conspiracy by a godless group to overthrow our government." Although ostensibly recognizing the professor's Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself, Whittaker, in effect, believed that he was bound to answer.

"Private-property rights are the soil in which our concept of human rights grows and matures. As long as private-property rights are secure, human rights will be respected and will endure and evolve."
—Charles Evans Whittaker

In 1957 President Eisenhower appointed Whittaker to the Supreme Court to replace the outgoing Justice stanley reed. Whittaker became the first judge from the Western District to be elevated to the Court. Generally, he voted conservatively. He wrote no significant opinions, and, indeed, had little discernible judicial philosophy. In 1959 his appointment came under attack from the attorney (and eventual Chief Justice) william rehnquist who wrote a scathing article attacking the U.S. Senate for not adequately considering Whittaker's nomination. In the Harvard Law Review Rehnquist noted dryly that the Senate hearings had revealed detailed information about the young Whittaker's life and education, but discussed nothing about his views on due process and Equal Protection.

In any event, Whittaker's views quickly did not matter. He found the work of the Supreme Court overly taxing, and, by 1962, suffering from exhaustion, he accepted his physician's advice that he retire. Some distinction was made as to his retiring rather than resigning and, as a result, he was allowed to continue to take part in Supreme Court ceremonies. No invalid, however, he later returned to legal practice, a move that set him apart from other modern justices. He died on November 26, 1973, in Kansas City, Missouri.

Further readings

Atkinson, David N., and Lawrence H. Larsen. 1995. "A Case Study in Federal Justice: Leading Bill of Rights Proceedings in the Western District of Missouri." Creighton Law Review 28 (April).

Downs, Robert C. 1996. "The First 100 Years UMKC School of Law: An Abridged History." UMKC Law Review 64 (summer). Miller, Richard Lawrence. 2002. Whittaker: Struggles of a Supreme Court Justice. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

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