Byrnes, James F. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A judicial conservative who believed that the Supreme Court’s role was to interpret rather than make law, Byrnes served on the Court for slightly more than a year although his career in politics and public service lasted more than forty years.

Byrnes’s first job in a career in politics and public service that spanned more than forty years was as a messenger boy in a law office. In 1900 he became the official court reporter in Aiken County, South Carolina. In 1903 he was admitted to the bar; the same year, he became editor and publisher of the Aiken Journal and Review. He was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1910 by a fifty-seven-vote margin. He served in this position until 1924, when he ran for the U.S. Senate but was defeated. After practicing law for six years, he again ran for the Senate and was elected. He served there for nearly eleven years until President Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated him for an associate justice seat on the Supreme Court. On June 12, 1941, the Senate unanimously confirmed his nomination.Roosevelt, Franklin D.;nominations to the Court

James F. Byrnes

(Library of Congress)

During his tenure on the Court, Byrnes followed a philosophy of judicial conservatism.Judicial conservatism As a strict constructionist, he believed that the role of the Court was to interpret rather than to make law. He regarded the Court as the defender of the Constitution against actions by the president or Congress that violated that document. However, he believed that the activism of the Court had resulted in a situation in which Congress and the president had to defend the Constitution against the usurpation of legislative power by the Court itself. His best-known decision while on the Court was Edwards v. California (1941),[case]Edwards v. California[Edwards v. California] in which he nullified a California statute that prohibited indigents from entering the state.

Byrnes served on the Court for slightly more than a year. In October, 1942, he resigned to head the wartime Office of Economic Stabilization. In May, 1943, he became director of war mobilization. President RooseveltRoosevelt, Franklin D.;Byrnes, James F.[Byrnes, James F.] referred to Byrnes as his “assistant president”; however, Roosevelt did not select Byrnes as his running mate in 1944 because he was advised that a southern segregationist on the ticket would hurt his chances for reelection. Byrnes did, however, accompany Roosevelt to Yalta and Harry S TrumanTruman, Harry S to the Potsdam Conference. He also served as Truman’s secretary of state from July, 1945, to January, 1947. In 1946 Time magazine named him its “Man of the Year” an honor it gave to persons having the greatest impact on the year’s news. From 1951 to 1955 Byrnes served as governor of South Carolina. In 1953 he was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a delegate to a session of the United Nations.

As governor of South Carolina, Byrnes concentrated on equalizing school funding for black and white schools in order to meet the Court’s doctrine of separate but equal. When the Court declared the policy unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Byrnes criticized the court for reversing the long-standing doctrine.Byrnes, James F.

Further Reading
  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Brown, Walter J. James F. Byrnes of South Carolina: A Remembrance. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1990.
  • Byrnes, James F. All in One Lifetime. New York: Harper, 1958.
  • Parrish, Michael E. The Hughes Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2002.
  • Renstrom., Peter G. The Stone Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2001.
  • Robertson, David. Sly and Able: A Political Bibliography of James F. Byrnes. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.

Constitutional interpretation

Edwards v. California

Executive privilege

Judicial activism

Roosevelt, Franklin D.

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