The only Supreme Court appointee rejected for confirmation during the seventy-five-year period between 1894 and 1969, Parker, as an appellate court judge, later showed himself to be a much more liberal jurist, in both economic and social issues, than many of his critics charged.
Born in Monroe, North Carolina, Parker graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1907 and from its law school one year later. Admitted to the bar, he established a law practice in first Greensboro and later Monroe. He became active in Republican Party politics and in 1920 was an unsuccessful candidate for governor of North Carolina. In 1924 Parker was appointed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals by President Calvin Coolidge.
John J. Parker
In 1930 he was nominated to the Supreme Court by Herbert Hoover to replace the deceased Edward T. Sanford. Although his nomination was initially greeted with enthusiasm, it soon met with fierce opposition from two powerful interest groups: the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The AFL opposed Parker for his ruling upholding the legality of “yellow dog” contracts prohibiting employees from joining unions and the NAACP for a campaign statement he had made in 1920 suggesting that African Americans did not “desire to enter politics.” In response to the AFL charges, Parker maintained that he had merely followed legal precedent and thus “had no latitude or discretion in expressing my opinions or views of my own.” Answering the NAACP charges, Parker angrily said that any suggestion of racism on his part was “totally unjustified.” Nevertheless, on May 7, 1930, by a vote of forty-one to thirty-nine, the Senate narrowly denied Parker confirmation to the Court. The vacant seat ultimately went to Owen J. Roberts.
Remaining on the appellate court bench until his death in 1958, Parker proved to be a much more liberal jurist than his critics had originally charged. Many of Parker’s Depression-era opinions favored the New Deal; for example, one decision upheld the constitutionality of the Public Works Administration. He also demonstrated a commitment to civil rights, which no doubt surprised his earlier critics within the NAACP. In 1947 he upheld a lower court ruling declaring South Carolina’s all-white primaries to be illegal. That same year, he similarly ruled that an African American worker could recover damages from a union that failed to protect him from racial discrimination in collective bargaining. In 1957 Parker ordered Prince Edward County, Virginia, to begin to integrate its schools.
Upon the death of Fred M. Vinson in 1953, Parker was considered for appointment as the next chief justice. At age sixty-seven, however, he was deemed to be too old and Dwight D. Eisenhower ultimately settled upon the younger Earl Warren for the position. In 1958 Parker died of a heart attack while attending a judicial conference in Washington, D.C.
Burris, William C. Duty and the Law: Judge John J. Parker and the Constitution. Bessemer, Ala.: Colonial Press, 1987. Goings, Kenneth W. The NAACP Comes of Age: The Defeat of Judge John J. Parker. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. White, Walter Francis. The Negro and the Supreme Court. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1931.
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