Fuller, Melville W. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Fuller was a gifted judicial administrator who managed the Supreme Court efficiently for twenty-two years; however, his legal impact was limited and many of his most important decisions were later overturned.

Fuller’s parents divorced shortly after his birth, and Fuller grew up in the household of his maternal grandfather, Chief Justice Nathan Weston of the Maine supreme judicial court. After graduating from Bowdoin College in 1853, he read law for a year in an uncle’s law office, then attended lectures at Harvard Law School for six months. Fuller moved to Chicago in 1856, where he practiced law for thirty-two years. An enthusiastic supporter of Stephen Douglas, Fuller became active in Democratic Party affairs in 1858. As his legal reputation grew, he began to specialize in appellate work, especially in the field of commercial law. Fuller was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court in 1872, thereafter frequently arguing cases before the Court. In 1888 President Grover Cleveland chose Fuller, a committed Democrat who shared Cleveland’s conservative economic and social views, to be the new chief justice.Cleveland, Grover;nominations to the Court

Melville W. Fuller

(Albert Rosenthal/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Fuller proved a particularly effective administrator. Although the majority of the justices were Republicans, Fuller’s Court never divided along party lines. Fuller’s impartiality and friendly personality permitted him to manage court conferences efficiently, preventing serious disputes from breaking out between the justices. Several of his colleagues called him the best presiding judge they had ever known. In 1891 Fuller successfully lobbied Congress to pass the Circuit Court of Appeals Act, which established, for the first time, nine intermediate federal courts and curtailed appeals to the Supreme Court. Between 1890 and 1892 the number of new cases facing the Court fell from 623 to 290. The act reduced the justices’ onerous circuit court duties and permitted the Court to concentrate on the most significant constitutional issues.Workload

A Conservative Justice

Fuller was more successful as an administrator than in the decisions that he authored or joined; his opinions dealing with the most important constitutional issues were later either modified or overturned. In Fuller’s view, the principal purpose of government was the protection of property rightsProperty rights. He was comfortable with large corporations and supportive of the expanding industrial capitalism of the late nineteenth century.

Fuller’s conservative bias colored two major rulings that he wrote in 1895. In United States v. E. C. Knight Co.[case]E. C. Knight Co., United States v.[E. C. Knight Co., United States v.] (1895), Fuller eviscerated the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which attempted to ban monopolies in restraint of trade. He held that the E. C. Knight Company, which controlled more than 90 percent of U.S. sugar refining, did not violate the act. Congress could regulate only interstate commerce, and Fuller ruled that manufacturing companies did not engage in commerce. Thus, even if a manufacturing company shipped to every state in the Union, the Sherman Antitrust Act did not affect it. As long as this restricted definition of commerce held, only collusive actions by railroads could be successfully prosecuted under the act. However, later Court decisions would severely modify and ultimately abandon Fuller’s interpretation of the act.

Fuller wrote the majority opinion in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.[case]Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.[Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.] (1895), in which the Court found a federal income tax to be unconstitutional. This reversed precedents going back to 1796 that had been accepted by the Court in validating the income tax imposed during the Civil War years. Fuller’s decision immediately evoked a furious political response. In 1896 the Democratic Party platform repudiated both Cleveland and Fuller, calling for a reversal of the Court’s ruling. The Progressive movement of the early twentieth century made annulment of the decision a major goal, leading, in 1913, to the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, granting Congress the power to tax income.

Fuller consistently ruled against laborLabor unions. In 1905 he joined the Court majority in Lochner v. New York, rejecting a New York law that set maximum workhours for bakers as an unreasonable interference with the right of free contract. Fuller was willing to apply the Sherman Act against labor unions, voting, in In re Debs[case]Debs, In re[Debs, In re] (1895), to uphold the criminal conviction of labor leader Eugene Debs for interfering with commerce during the Pullman Strike. In 1908 he wrote the opinion in Loewe v. Lawlor[case]Loewe v. Lawlor[Loewe v. Lawlor] the Danbury Hatter’s case ruling that a labor boycott in support of a strike violated the Sherman Act. The decision did not explain why hat making, unlike sugar refining, was involved in commerce. Legislation and judicial decisions subsequently reversed both Lochner and Loewe.

Constitutional issues involving civil rightsCivil rights and liberties did not engage Fuller’s concern. He rejected Justice John Marshall Harlan’s thesis that the rights guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment applied to the states. The Court did not agree with Harlan that freedom of speech was protected against state infringement by the amendment. The Fuller Court ignored acts discriminating against African Americans in the fields of education and voting rightsAfrican Americans;voting rights[voting rights] and refused to assert federal jurisdiction in cases in which states were accused of violating the constitutional rights of African Americans. Fuller voted with the majority in Plessy v. Ferguson[case]Plessy v. Ferguson[Plessy v. Ferguson] (1896), accepting the separate but equal doctrine as justification for racial segregation. This, and other civil rights decisions of the Fuller court, would later be overturned by the Court.

In 1892 Fuller declined an offer from President Cleveland to become secretary of state, on grounds that leaving the chief justiceship for another office would be detrimental to the reputation of the Court. Fuller accepted an appointment to the Venezuelan Boundary Arbitration Commission in 1897 and served on the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague from 1900 until his death. By 1910 Fuller’s health was failing; he died of a heart attack while at his summer home in Maine.

Further Reading
  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Ely, James W., Jr. The Chief Justiceship of Melville W. Fuller, 1888-1910. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
  • Ely, James W., Jr. The Fuller Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. The Justices of the Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
  • King, Willard L. Melville Weston Fuller: Chief Justice of the United States, 1888-1910. New York: Macmillan, 1950.

Debs, In re

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

Green v. Biddle

Harlan, John Marshall

Income tax

Lochner v. New York

Loewe v. Lawlor

Plessy v. Ferguson

Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.

Sherman Antitrust Act

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