Olney, Richard Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

As U.S. attorney general, Olney argued three major cases before the Supreme Court.

Olney was educated at Brown College (1851-1856) and Harvard Law School (1856-1858). Between 1876 and 1879, he reorganized the financially distressed Eastern Railroad Company of Massachusetts and became the attorney for its subsidiary, Eastern Railroad (1884). In 1889 Olney became general counsel for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad.

President Grover Cleveland appointed Olney as U.S. attorney general in 1893. Olney’s most controversial act was the suppression of the Chicago railroad boycott and strike of 1894 (the Pullman strike), when he ordered deputy marshals to protect the movement of mail trains, backed by federal troops and a court injunction.

During Olney’s tenure, the Justice Department brought three major cases before the Supreme Court, all in 1895. Olney considered In re Debs,[case]Debs, In re[Debs, In re] which had grown out of the Pullman strike, to be the most important and personally argued that case before the Court. A sweeping unanimous decision upheld the blanket injunction and outlawed strikes against railroads carrying either interstate commerce or the mail for the next quarter century. In United States v. E. C. Knight Co., a suit brought against the sugar refiners, the Court so narrowly interpreted the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 that it was useless against trusts for at least a decade. In Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co., the Court struck down the income tax as a revenue source.

In 1895 Olney was appointed secretary of state. He left government service in 1897 and returned to his law practice.

Commerce, regulation of

Debs, In re

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

Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.

Sherman Antitrust Act

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