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.
Melville W. Fuller
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.
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 rights
Fuller’s conservative bias colored two major rulings that he wrote in 1895. In United States v. E. C. Knight Co.
Fuller wrote the majority opinion in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.
Fuller consistently ruled against labor
Constitutional issues involving civil rights
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.
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
Lochner v. New York
Loewe v. Lawlor
Plessy v. Ferguson
Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.
Sherman Antitrust Act