Clarke, John H. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During his short tenure on the Supreme Court, Clarke opposed the Court’s nullification of social and economic regulatory legislation.

The son of a prominent Ohio attorney, Clarke graduated from Western Reserve College in 1877 and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1878 after studying law at Western Reserve and with his father. Clarke practiced law for nearly twenty years in Youngstown, where he was part owner of the Youngstown Vindicator and was active in state Democratic politics. Clarke moved to Cleveland in 1897, where he served as counsel for railroads. Meanwhile, Clarke became an outspoken advocate of such progressive measures as the initiative and referendum, the recall of public officials other than judges, regulations of the hours and conditions of labor, woman suffrage, and civil service reform. Clarke made unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate in 1904 and 1914.NullificationWilson, Woodrow;nominations to the CourtNullification

John H. Clarke

(Harris and Ewing/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Clarke’s ProgressiveProgressivism;Clarke, John H.[Clarke, John H.] leanings, his Democratic loyalties and connections, his widely recognized legal abilities, and his dedication to vigorous prosecution of companies under the federal antitrust laws led to his appointment by President Woodrow WilsonWilson, Woodrow;Clarke, John H.[Clarke, John H.] in 1914 as a judge of the U.S. District Court for the northern district of Ohio. The same considerations resulted in Wilson’s appointment of Clarke to the Supreme Court in 1916 after the resignation of Charles Evans Hughes.

Clarke’s record on the Court was consistent with Wilson’s expectations. During his six years on the Court, Clarke regularly voted with the Court’s Progressive bloc to sustain the constitutionality of social and economic regulatory legislation and to support vigorous enforcement of the antitrust laws. In some cases, Clarke cast the swing vote to sustain regulatory legislation. Clarke dissented in various cases in which the Court struck down such laws. In Hammer v. Dagenhart[case]Hammer v. Dagenhart[Hammer v. Dagenhart];Clarke, John H.[Clarke, John H.] (1918), Clarke joined Justices Joseph McKenna, Louis D. Brandeis, and Oliver Wendell Holmes in dissenting from the Court’s decision that a federal child labor law exceeded Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. In Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co.[case]Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co.[Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co.] (1922), Clarke entered a sole dissent, without opinion, from the Court’s decision that a reenacted child labor law that taxed goods produced by children was not within the congressional power to levy taxes.

In cases involving free speech, Clarke espoused the same broad view of state power that he expressed in cases involving social and economic regulations. Most notably, Clarke broke with Holmes and Brandeis to write the majority opinion in Abrams v. United States[case]Abrams v. United States[Abrams v. United States] (1919), upholding the espionage convictions of political dissidents whose primary offense was to distribute written criticisms of the government’s military policies.

Increasingly bored by what he perceived as the triviality of much of the Court’s work and frustrated by what he perceived as his inability to promote his progressive philosophy on an increasingly conservative Court, Clarke resigned from the Court after only six years in order to work for world peace. After retiring from the Court, Clarke spoke and wrote widely on behalf of U.S. entry into the League of NationsLeague of Nations;Clarke, John H.[Clarke, John H.] and served as a trustee of the World Peace Foundation. He also became an outspoken critic of judicial activism by the Supreme Court and publicly supported Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Court-packing planCourt-packing plan;Clarke, John H.[Clarke, John H.] in 1937.

Further Reading
  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Renstrom, Peter G. The Taft Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Shoemaker, Rebecca S. The White Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.
  • Warner, Hoyt Landon. The Life of Mr. Justice Clarke: A Testament to the Power of Liberal Dissent in America. Cleveland, Ohio: Western Reserve University Press, 1959.

Abrams v. United States

Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co.

Court-packing plan

Hammer v. Dagenhart

Progressivism

Resignation and retirement

Wilson, Woodrow

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