White Court (1911–1921)

2012-09-27 22:09:24

The U.S. Supreme Court was guided by the leadership of Chief Justice Edward Douglass White from January 1911 to May 1921. A total of eleven justices served on the Court during what has been described by some as a time of transition in the Court’s role in interpreting and applying the U.S. Constitution. Much of the Court’s time was taken up with issues related to the growth and expansion of business—antitrust cases, regulation of commerce, and consideration of the rights of labor. At the same time, however, the Court issued rulings on a variety of social issues, including the reach of the national police power and the constitutionality of a number of Jim Crow policies. World War I raised issues concerning the expansion of the government’s power during wartime, and gave the Court the opportunity to rule on circumstances under which civil liberties might be curtailed. It could be said that the White Court laid the groundwork for the broader role the Court would assume in subsequent decades.

Edward Douglass White, who had been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland, in 1910 became the first associate justice to be promoted to the chief justiceship. Selected by then-President William Howard Taft, he assumed the new role in January 1911, and presided for the next eleven years. The Court he led saw service by a total of twelve other justices, including John Marshall Harlan (1877–1911), Joseph McKenna (1898–1925), Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1902– 1932), William R. Day (1903–1922), Horace Lurton (1909–1914), Charles Evans Hughes (1910–1916), Willis Van Devanter (1910–1937), Joseph R. Lamar (1911–1916), Mahlon Pitney (1912–1922), James McReynolds (1914–1941), Louis Brandeis (1916– 1939), and John H. Clarke (1916–1922).

Much of the time during the early years of the White Court was consumed by cases concerning government regulation of big business. The Court made final rulings in 1911 in two major antitrust cases begun several years earlier. Its ruling in Standard Oil Company v. United States (1911) was regarded as a turning point in interpretation of the Sherman Anti- Trust Act because it came down on the side of business by establishing the ‘‘rule of reason,’’ which decreed that only trusts that represented an unreasonable restraint of trade were to be considered in violation of the act. In a series of cases questioning the reach of the federal government in regulating interstate commerce, the White Court concluded that the Interstate Commerce Commission had broad powers, including the right to override competing state regulations under certain circumstances.

The White Court’s rulings on issues related to labor provided some victories for workers, but as often sided with management. On the one hand, in upholding the Employers’ Liability Law in 1912, the Court recognized that factory owners bore some responsibility for the safety and well-being of their workers. They made another step forward on behalf of labor when they approved the ten-hour day in Bunting v. Oregon (1917). On the other hand, White and his fellow justices handed labor some major defeats in cases such as Coppage v. Kansas (1915), when they outlawed state laws barring the use of yellow dog contracts, and in Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) when they invalidated the federal Keating- Owen Child Labor Act.

Challenges to a number of pieces of Progressive legislation gave the White Court opportunities to weigh in on the reach of national police power, and the power of Congress to legislate for the health, safety, and welfare of citizens. Hipolite Egg Co. v. United States (1911) resulted in a ruling upholding the proconsumer Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. The Mann Act, which was passed to prevent the transport of women across state lines for immoral purposes (prostitution), was upheld by the Court in Hoke v. United States (1913), and its interpretation broadened in Caminetti v. United States (1917).

Although only limited challenges to the thenpervasive Jim Crow policies limiting the rights of African Americans were raised during the early decades of the twentieth century, the White Court was able to strike out against a few egregious policies. In Bailey v. Alabama (1911) and United States v. Reynolds (1914), the Court outlawed the use of a system of debt peonage in the southern states. In Guinn and Beal v. United States (1915), the Court required the abandonment of the use of the grandfather clause, an antiquated means of preventing blacks from voting. Two decisions in 1914 and 1917 endeavored to place restrictions on segregation as a factor in the sale of property, and in limiting access to rail transportation.

Government policy resulting from the entry of the United States into World War II raised a number of constitutional questions that eventually came before the White Court. Expansion of presidential and federal authority in areas such as implementation of a draft, regulation of means of transportation, and allocation of scarce resources all prompted questions. The White Court consistently upheld the authority of the federal government to do what it needed to do to prosecute the war effectively (Selective Service Draft Law Cases [1918], Northern Pacific Railway v. North Dakota [1919]), but also required Congress to be specific in outlining guidelines for the enforcement of the policies it established (United States v. Cohen Grocery Store [1921]). Several civil liberties issues arose as a result of the passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts aimed at controlling criticism of the war effort. In a landmark decision in Schenck v. United States (1919), Justice Holmes approved restrictions on freedom of speech and press during wartime, establishing the ‘‘clear and present danger’’ doctrine as a guideline for determining when such restrictions were warranted. Subsequent decisions buttressed this ruling, although dissents by Holmes and Brandeis in Abrams v. United States (1919) laid out arguments that would provide the foundations for future defenses of broad protection for free speech.

Many of the White Court’s rulings reflected the thinking and the values and priorities of the times in which they were written. Although most did not establish long-term precedents in the areas under consideration, a number did establish foundations upon which future courts would build. The White Court era is not generally regarded as one of the most important in Supreme Court history, but its history does reflect many of the struggles besetting the nation and its judiciary as it moved toward accommodating itself to the rapid changes of the modern world.


References and Further Reading

  • Bickel, Alexander M., and Benno C. Schmidt, Jr. The Judiciary and Responsible Government, 1910–21. New York: Macmillan, 1984.
  • Highsaw, Robert B. Edward Douglass White. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
  • Shoemaker, Rebecca S. The White Court: Justices, Rulings, Legacy. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio Press, 2004.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919)
  • Bailey v. Alabama, 211 U.S. 452 (1911)
  • Bunting v. Oregon, 243 U.S. 246 (1917)
  • Caminetti v. United States, 242 U.S. 470 (1917)
  • Coppage v. Kansas, 236 U.S. 1 (1915)
  • Guinn and Beal v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 (1915)
  • Hammer v. Dagenhart, 247 U.S. 251 (1918)
  • Hipolite Egg Co. v. United States, 220 U.S. 45 (1911)
  • Hoke v. United States, 227 U.S. 308 (1913)
  • Northern Pacific Railway v. North Dakota, 236 U.S. 585 (1919)
  • Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919)
  • Selective Draft Law Cases, 245 U.S. 366 (1918)
  • Standard Oil Co. v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911)
  • United States v. L. Cohen Grocery Company, 255 U.S. 81 (1921)
  • United States v. Reynolds, 235 U.S. 133 (1914)

See also Brandeis, Louis Dembitz; Clear and Present Danger Test; Harlan, John Marshall, the Elder; Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr.; Interstate Commerce; McReynolds, James C.; Sherman Act; World War I, Civil Liberties in