Justice Harold Burton (1888–1964)

Harold Hitz Burton, mayor of Cleveland, senator from Ohio and associate justice to the U.S. Supreme Court was born on June 22, 1888, in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. After graduating from Bowdoin College, he went on to attend Harvard Law School where he graduated in 1912. After law school, Burton moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he began his law practice. His law career was interrupted, however, by the outbreak of World War I. Burton served in the army and was wounded in combat for which he received the Purple Heart. After the war, Burton resumed his law practice in Cleveland. In 1935, he ran for and was elected mayor of Cleveland, and served in that capacity until 1940 when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. In 1945, President Truman nominated Burton to the Supreme Court. Burton remained on the Court for thirteen years until his retirement for health reasons in 1958. Justice Burton died on October 28, 1964 from complications due to Parkinson’s disease.

While Burton was generally considered a conservative justice who favored a philosophy of judicial restraint, his contributions to civil liberties is best illustrated in his stance on the equal protection of the laws, and nowhere was that more apparent than in his opposition to the doctrine of separate but equal. Writing for the Court in Henderson v. United States, Burton found that the Southern Railway Company’s practice of limiting black passengers to a small curtained- off section of the dining car, even when open seats were available elsewhere, was a patent violation of Section 3(1) of the Interstate Commerce Act, which made it illegal for a railroad traveling in interstate commerce to subject passengers to ‘‘any undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage.’’ Burton went on to state that equality of treatment was a fundamental right guaranteed to all citizens. Moreover, Burton repeatedly joined in decisions that overturned segregationist laws. In 1948, Burton voted with the majority in Shelley v. Kraemer, where the Court found that it was unconstitutional for states to prevent the sale of real property, covered in racially restrictive covenants, to blacks. Then again in 1954, Burton was part of the unanimous decision in Bolling v. Sharpe, which found segregated schools in Washington, DC to be an unconstitutional violation of due process protected by the Fifth Amendment. Burton was also part of the unanimous decision in the landmark desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, which was decided on the same day as Bolling. Burton was reportedly instrumental in bringing about the unanimous vote. Indeed, in a personal letter written to Chief Justice Earl Warren, Burton reveals his feeling that the Bolling and Brown cases where probably the most ‘‘significant decisions’’ made during his time on the Court and that it was a honor to have taken part in them. The segregation cases did, as Burton predicted, become two of the most important cases decided during the Warren Court. Accordingly, Burton’s support for overturning racial segregation is perhaps his greatest legacy.

MARCEL GREEN

References and Further Reading

  • Langran, Robert W. ‘‘Why are Some Supreme Court Justices Rated as ‘Failures’?’’ Supreme Court Historical Society 1985 Yearbook. http://www.supremecourthistory.org/04_library/subs_volumes/04_c19_d.html. 
  • Rudko, Frances Howell. Truman’s Court: A Study in Judicial Restraint. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954) 
  • Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) 
  • Henderson v. United States, 339 U.S. 816 (1950) 
  • Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948)

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