Brewer, David J. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In more than two decades on the Supreme Court, Brewer was the intellectual leader of an activist majority that regularly declared unconstitutional government-imposed labor and industrial regulations and interpreted the Constitution to protect private property and economic laissez-faire.

Although born in Asia to New England missionary parents, Brewer returned to Connecticut in 1839, where he was reared in a climate of wealth and privilege. After graduating from Yale University at the age of eighteen, Brewer attended Albany Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1858. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Kansas to practice law in Leavenworth. Brewer served as commissioner of the federal circuit court, probate court judge, state district court judge, Kansas Supreme Court justice, and federal Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals judge.Property rightsCapitalismHarrison, Benjamin;nominations to the CourtProperty rightsCapitalism

David J. Brewer

(Library of Congress)

In December, 1889, Brewer was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Benjamin Harrison. His nomination was approved in the Senate by a vote of fifty-two to eleven, and he took his seat on January 6, 1890. Brewer’s record on the Court is a mixed one, although he is primarily remembered for his devotion to the protection of private property and his opposition to government regulation of the economy, labor unions, and laws protecting working people.

Writing the majority opinion for In re Debs[case]Debs, In re[Debs, In re] (1895), Brewer upheld the power of the government to stop labor strikes. In Lochner v. New York[case]Lochner v. New York[Lochner v. New York] (1905), he joined the majority in declaring unconstitutional a state law that established the maximum number of hours per day that bakers could work. In United States v. E. C. Knight Co. (1895), he joined the majority in reading the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 so that many monopolies would remain untouched by it. However, it was Brewer who wrote the unanimous opinion in Muller v. Oregon[case]Muller v. Oregon[Muller v. Oregon] (1908) upholding a maximum-hour workday law for women employed in laundries.

On race issues, Brewer’s record was similarly mixed. Although he opposed slavery and favored the rights of Asian immigrants (United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 1898) and American Indians (Brown v. Steele, 1880), he also held in favor of segregated railway cars (Louisville, New Orleans & Texas Railway Co. v. Mississippi, 1890) and voted to uphold a state law prohibiting integrated classrooms in private schools and colleges (Berea College v. Kentucky, 1908). Likewise, he also voted to uphold a Virginia law prohibiting women from joining the bar (In re Lockwood, 1894).

Further Reading
  • Brodhead, Michael J. David J. Brewer: The Life of a Supreme Court Justice, 1837-1910. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.
  • Ely, James W., Jr. The Fuller Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Gillman, Howard. The Constitution Besieged: The Rise and Demise of Lochner Era Police Power Jurisprudence. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.

E. C. Knight Co., United States v.


Lochner v. New York

Louisville, New Orleans, and Texas Railway Co. v. Mississippi

Muller v. Oregon

Wong Kim Ark, United States v.

Categories: History