Davis, John W. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Davis argued more cases (140) before the Supreme Court than any attorney in history, including numerous high-profile cases resulting in decisions that changed U.S. jurisprudence and society.

Born in West Virginia and educated at Washington and Lee University, Davis possessed a stoic conservatism that often created conflicts between his personal beliefs and his professional obligations. A meticulous person with a penchant for elegant oratory, Davis served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1911-1913) before President Woodrow Wilson appointed him solicitor general in 1913. During his tenure as solicitor general (1913-1918), Davis won forty-eight of the sixty-seven cases he argued before the Supreme Court, often championing causes (such as antitrust legislation, fair labor practices, and black voting rights) that he personally opposed. Following a stint as ambassador to Great Britain and an unsuccessful run for president, Davis worked on Wall Street as a corporate attorney, winning several landmark probusiness decisions before the Court.

John W. Davis

(Library of Congress)

Davis also established a reputation as a civil liberties attorney, successfully defending conscientious objection to military service in United States v. Macintosh[case]Macintosh, United States v.[Macintosh, United States v.] (1931) and winning a number of key cases pertaining to free press and association. Yet Davis, an ardent segregationist, demonstrated little concern for the rights of racial minorities. In 1952, at the age of eighty, he led prosegregation attorneys before the Court in the case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954),[case]Brown v. Board of Education[Brown v. Board of Education] in which plaintiffs petitioned the Court to integrate public schools. In his final appearance before the Court, Davis lost the Brown case by unanimous decision.Davis, John W.

Brown v. Board of Education

Guinn v. United States

Wilson, Woodrow

Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer

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