During his thirty-four years on the Court, Black led the drive to make the rights of the Constitution’s first eight amendments binding on the states, while working vigorously to expand constitutional rights, especially in the areas of free speech and civil rights.
The son of a poor storekeeper in rural Alabama, Black took a keen interest in both books and politics at a young age. Although a disciplinary incident prevented him from graduating from high school, he studied for a year in medical school and then transferred to the University of Alabama’s law school. Immediately after earning his law degree at the age of twenty, he began to practice law in the city of Birmingham. Orienting his practice toward working people and labor unions, he became one of Alabama’s most successful personal injury lawyers. His courtroom style combined fiery presentations and detailed knowledge of relevant facts. He joined many civic organizations, and despite his religious skepticism, he taught a popular adult class at a Baptist church. He also served as a part-time police court judge in 1910-1911.
In 1914 Black was elected prosecutor of Alabama’s Jefferson County. He effectively emptied a large docket, and he once prosecuted police officers for forcing confessions from African American defendants. He joined the Army during World War I and rose to the rank of captain but never left the United States. After returning to Birmingham, he married and had three children. Meanwhile, his law practice flourished.
Hugo L. Black
Black was a member of the Ku Klux Klan from 1923 to 1925 and was elected to the U.S. Senate with Klan support in 1926. Like other southern populists of the time, he campaigned on the theme of promoting economic justice for the poor and the weak. Because the Republican Party controlled Congress during Black’s first Senate term, he spent much of his time pursuing his interests in history and philosophy. However, the Democratic Party’s electoral triumph in 1932 gave him the opportunity to exercise a leadership role in the Senate.
As Democratic Party whip in the Senate, Black played a crucial role in helping to pass President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. He was also a leading force in congressional investigations of lobbying practices and misappropriation of government subsidies. Black sponsored the earliest minimum-wage and maximum-hours law. A long-time critic of the Supreme Court’s economic conservatism, he bitterly resented the Court’s striking down of New Deal legislation and enthusiastically supported Roosevelt’s Court-packing plan.
On August 12, 1937, Roosevelt named Black to fill the first Supreme Court vacancy that opened during his presidency. A mere five days later, the Senate confirmed Black’s nomination by a vote of sixty-three to sixteen. Black served on the Court until failing health forced his resignation on September 25, 1973. He died just eight days later.
As an associate justice, Black argued that framers of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) had intended to incorporate all the rights guaranteed by the first eight amendments into their new amendment.
Believing that the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of speech and press were at the heart of a free government, Black accepted the “preferred position” of these freedoms in the 1940’s.
Black endorsed Thomas Jefferson’s view that the First Amendment erected a wall separating church and state
In criminal trials, Black generally took an expansionist view on the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.
Black has been especially criticized for his majority opinion in Korematsu v. United States
In his book, A Constitutional Faith (1968), Black expressed a quasireligious devotion to the text of the Constitution. A critic of judicial discretion, he argued that judges should base their decisions on a literal reading of the Constitution, while taking into account the intent
Steve Suitts’s Hugo Black of Alabama: How His Roots and Early Career Shaped the Great Champion of the Constitution (Montgomery: NewSouth Books, 2005) is an impressively researched and beautifully written study of Black’s entire life. Roger K. Newman’s Hugo Black: A Biography (New York: Pantheon, 1994) is a scholarly and well-written study of Black’s life and career. James Magee’s Mr. Justice Black: Absolutist on the Court (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980) presents a critical analysis of his judicial philosophy, with an emphasis on his absolutist views on free expression For an interesting comparative approach, see James Simon’s The Antagonists: Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter and Civil Liberties in Modern America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989). For a detailed study of his career until 1937, see Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton’s Hugo Black: The Alabama Years (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972). Hugo Black, Jr., presents a delightful look at the man in My Father: A Remembrance (New York: Random House, 1975). Irving Dilliard edited a collection of many of his Supreme Court opinions in One Man’s Stand for Freedom: Mr. Justice Black and the Bill of Rights (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963). Other recommended works include Tony Freyer’s Hugo L. Black and the Dilemma of American Liberalism (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1990); Howard Ball’s Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Michael Parrish’s New Deal Justice (New York: Random House, 1998); and Tinsley Yarbrough’s Mr. Justice Black and His Critics (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1988).
Due process, substantive
First Amendment absolutism
Race and discrimination
Religion, establishment of
Roosevelt, Franklin D.