Stone, Harlan Fiske Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

As an associate justice, Stone established a bedrock doctrine for judicial responsibility in the area of civil rights and promoted a philosophy of judicial self-restraint. Power struggles and discord among several strong-willed associate justices lessened the effectiveness of his tenure as chief justice.

Stone was born in New Hampshire but grew up near Amherst, Massachusetts, where his family moved when he was two years old. His father’s family, longtime farmers and community leaders, traced their roots in America to Simon Stone, who had emigrated from England in 1635. Stone graduated from Amherst College, where he was president of his class, in 1894 and from Columbia Law School in 1898.Coolidge, Calvin;nominations to the CourtRoosevelt, Franklin D.;nominations to the Court

Harlan Fiske Stone

(Harris and Ewing/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Upon his admission to the bar, Stone worked as an attorney in various New York City firms and taught law as an adjunct professor at Columbia. In 1910 he was named dean of its law school and juggled academe with a successful law practice until 1923, when he resigned as dean to become a partner and head of the litigation department at Sullivan & Cromwell, a Wall Street law firm. After only one year, however, he left this lucrative position when his former college classmate and fellow Republican, President Calvin Coolidge, appointed him attorney general at a substantial cut in pay. As part of his duties, Stone reorganized the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which had been despoiled by corruption, and appointed J. Edgar Hoover as its head.

Justice Stone

In January, 1925, Coolidge again looked to Stone to fill a vacancy, this time by nominating him to the Supreme Court. He was confirmed on February 5, 1925, and began a tenure in which he was the first justice to occupy all nine seats on the Court’s bench, which are assigned according to seniority. Appointed as chief justice by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, he served until April 22, 1946, when, after collapsing at the bench, he died.

Although Stone was a Republican and Roosevelt a Democrat, Stone was an early supporter of Roosevelt’s New DealNew Deal legislation. Stone and Justices Louis D. Brandeis and Benjamin N. Cardozo formed a tenacious minority who believed that the Court was inappropriately trying to limit the legislature’s power to regulate the economy. Stone recorded his views in a particularly strident dissent after the Court struck down the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, virtually accusing his fellow jurors of appropriating the roles and responsibilities of the legislature and outlining the importance of judicial self-restraint. The next year, after Roosevelt first tried to enlarge the Court, then appointed new, more liberally minded members as a result of some key retirements, the tide began to turn in favor of the New Deal, and Stone became part of the majority on such decisions.

The next issue in which Stone played a pivotal role was in the still fledgling struggle for the civil rights of minority groups. In a footnote in his opinion in United States v. Carolene Products Co.[case]Carolene Products Co., United States v.[Carolene Products Co., United States v.] (1938), he argued that the Court should set aside the practice of judicial self-restraint in the face of legislation that infringed on constitutionally established rights for racial, political, or religious minorities. Frequently considered one of the most important footnotes in constitutional history, it established the doctrine of preferred freedomsPreferred freedoms doctrine, which ordains that certain rights are indeed inalienable and must be accorded special protection by the Court. In Minersville School District v. Gobitis[case]Minersville School District v. Gobitis[Minersville School District v. Gobitis] (1940), he upheld these views as the lone dissenting vote in a case between a school district and two children who, as practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses, refused to salute the U.S. flag. The Court supported the school district’s action to expel the children. In part because of Stone’s arguments against such a position, it was overturned in a similar case three years later.

Chief Justice Stone

After Charles Evans Hughes retired as chief justice in July, 1941, Roosevelt chose Stone as his successor, in part as a gesture of unity between political parties as war approached and in part as a reward for Stone’s unstinting support of New Deal legislation. The Court included a number of strong-minded, highly intellectual justices, among them Hugo L. Black, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, and Robert H. Jackson. Stone proved unequal to the task of mediating the bitter differences that arose among these and the other associate justices as they faced the challenging and difficult issues that arose during World War II (1941-1945). The five years he served as chief justice are often regarded as the most openly combative in Court history.

Further Reading
  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Lief, Alfred, ed. Public Control of Business: Selected Opinions by Harlan Fiske Stone. Buffalo, N.Y.: W. S. Hein, 1996.
  • Mason, Alpheus T. Harlan Fiske Stone: Pillar of the Law. New York: Viking, 1968.
  • Mason, Alpheus T. The Supreme Court from Taft to Burger. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
  • Renstrom., Peter G. The Stone Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2001.
  • Renstrom., Peter G. The Taft Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Steamer, Robert J. Chief Justice: Leadership and the Supreme Court. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. Division and Discord: The Supreme Court Under Stone and Vinson, 1941-1953. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
  • White, G. Edward. The American Judicial Tradition: Profiles of Leading American Judges. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Black, Jeremiah S.

Brandeis, Louis D.

Cardozo, Benjamin N.

Carolene Products Co., United States v.

Douglas, William O.

Frankfurter, Felix

Jackson, Robert H.

Judicial self-restraint

Minersville School District v. Gobitis

New Deal

Preferred freedoms doctrine

Roosevelt, Franklin D.

Categories: History Content