Sanford, Edward T. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Sanford served on the Supreme Court for seven years and wrote 130 opinions. A moderate closely allied to Chief Justice William H. Taft, he was overshadowed by his more illustrious colleagues. His most notable contribution was in the widening of free speech rights.

The son of a Tennessee Republican millionaire, Sanford received an unusually broad and cosmopolitan education. An excellent and much honored student, he earned two degrees at the University of Tennessee in 1883 and a second bachelor’s degree and an M.A. at Harvard in 1884 and 1889. He also spent a year studying in Europe. Sanford graduated from Harvard Law School in 1889, then practiced in his hometown of Knoxville and, after 1898, combined his professional legal work with teaching law at the University of Tennessee.Speech, freedom ofHarding, Warren G.Speech, freedom of

Edward T. Sanford

(Kuaff and Brakebill/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Sanford came to Washington, D.C., in 1905, at the behest of U.S. attorney general James C. McReynolds (later his colleague on the Supreme Court). McReynolds enlisted Sanford as a special prosecutor, one of President Theodore Roosevelt’s “trust busters.” After McReynolds moved on, Sanford became assistant attorney general. His work caught the attention of Roosevelt, who, in 1908, appointed him to a federal judgeship in Tennessee. From 1908 until his appointment to the Court in 1923, Sanford was a highly respected federal judge, noted for his civility, tolerance, dignity, charm, and thoughtfulness.

When Justice Mahlon Pitney resigned at the end of 1922, President Warren G. Harding nominated Sanford as his replacement. Sanford’s nomination had the support of U.S. attorney general Harry Daugherty and of Chief Justice William H. Taft, who had known Sanford since Justice Department days and was impressed by Sanford’s advocacy of U.S. entry into the League of Nations, a cause close to Taft’s own heart.

As a Supreme Court justice, Sanford was a moderate who greatly respected judicial precedent and who was an expert in bankruptcy law. Perhaps because of his antitrust efforts, he had considerable sympathy for exercises of state and federal regulation of business, but he was not a friend of organized labor. His record on the rights of African Americans was also mixed. His notable opinion in the Pocket Veto Case[case]Pocket Veto Case[Pocket Veto Case] (1929), one of his last, clarified the use of that presidential power. One researcher noted that Sanford’s moderate position placed him in a neutral zone where he drew neither the ire nor the admiration of Court historians.

His lasting contribution was in the area of free speech. In his majority opinions in both Gitlow v. New York[case]Gitlow v. New York[Gitlow v. New York](1925) and Whitney v. California[case]Whitney v. California[Whitney v. California] (1927), Sanford declared that the Fourteenth Amendment required the states to uphold First Amendment rights to free speech and a free press. This was a pioneering expression of the view that the Fourteenth Amendment had “incorporated” the guarantees of the Bill of Rights and extended their protections against actions by the states.

First Amendment speech tests

Gitlow v. New York

Incorporation doctrine

McReynolds, James C.

Speech and press, freedom of

Taft, William H.

Whitney v. California

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