During seventeen years on the Supreme Court, Butler supported Court decisions that limited the authority of the states and the federal government to regulate private businesses. In the 1930’s he was one of the Court’s Four Horsemen, who consistently held New Deal legislation regulating economic affairs to be unconstitutional.
The son of Irish immigrants, Butler was raised on a farm in Dakota County, Minnesota. In 1887 he received a bachelor’s degree from Carleton College. Admitted to the Minnesota Bar in 1888, Butler served from 1890 to 1896 as a prosecuting attorney for Ramsey County, Minnesota. He then entered private practice representing corporate clients and excelled as a courtroom attorney. In 1908 he was elected president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. He specialized in defending railroads in valuation cases that determined railroad rates and gained a national reputation when he defended the railroads before the Supreme Court in the Minnesota Rate Cases
On November 22, 1922, President Warren G. Harding named Butler to fill the vacancy created by Justice William R. Day’s resignation. On December 21, 1922, Butler was confirmed by a Senate vote of sixty-one to eight. He took the oath on January 2, 1923, and served on the Court until his death on November 16, 1939.
During his Court tenure, Butler consistently supported laissez-faire legal doctrines that upheld the right of private businesses
The most significant Court opinion written by Butler was Morehead v. New York ex rel. Tipaldo
Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004. Brown, Francis Joseph. The Social and Economic Philosophy of Pierce Butler. Washington: Catholic University Press, 1945. Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997. Parrish, Michael E. The Hughes Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2002. Renstrom, Peter G. The Taft Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
Commerce, regulation of
Contract, freedom of
Due process, substantive
Morehead v. New York ex rel. Tipaldo
Roosevelt, Franklin D.