White, Edward D. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During his twenty-seven years on the Supreme Court, White was the first associate justice elevated to chief justice. His legacy consists less of legal doctrine than of ceremonial procedure. White introduced the informal handshaking tradition before each Court conference to ameliorate ideological contentiousness.

The only native of Louisiana to serve on the Supreme Court, White came from an elitist background. His father and grandfather were wealthy sugar planters whose careers joined politics and the law. His maternal grandfather was the first federal marshal of the District of Columbia and the U.S. Supreme Court. The Whites were lawyer politicians who worked to preserve their southern way of life through their legislative, executive, and judicial careers. Unlike his father and grandfather, White never received an academic degree, dropping out of Georgetown College in Washington, D.C., to join the Confederate army. Captured in 1863, he spent the remainder of the war in Louisiana as a paroled prisoner of war. After the war, he read law in New Orleans and was admitted to the state bar in 1868.Cleveland, Grover;nominations to the CourtTaft, William H.;nominations to the Court

Edward D. White

(Albert Rosenthal/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Following his family tradition, White soon became involved in legislative politics and was elected to the state senate in 1874. His father’s friendship with the governor led to White’s appointment in 1878 as an associate justice of the Louisiana supreme court. He served in that capacity until rival political factions forced him from the bench in 1880. He was elected in 1891 to the U.S. Senate, where he served as the majority leader.

White became President Grover Cleveland’s fourth choice to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. White was the first Democrat appointed since 1862 and the second Roman CatholicRoman Catholics;White, Edward D.Roman Catholics;on the Court[court] to serve on the Court. He served as associate justice from 1894 to 1910, when President William H. Taft appointed him the ninth chief justice, perhaps appointing an old candidate to increase his own chances of succeeding the chief justice, as Taft did in 1921.

Critics expected a reactionary southerner, but White revealed himself as a nationalist and progressive conservative. He wrote approximately seven hundred majority opinions, ten concurring opinions, and thirty-three dissents. He established the judicial definition of a trust that is still used, and he set forth the rule of reasonRule of reason criterion in Standard Oil Co. v. United States[case]Standard Oil Co. v. United States[Standard Oil Co. v. United States] (1911), which undermined the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 by promoting oligopoly. His distinction between “incorporated” and“unincorporated” territories was accepted in Dorr v. United States[case]Dorr v. United States[Dorr v. United States] (1904), permitting imperialist gains, protecting sugar and tobacco interests, and limiting civil rights in new U.S. territories.

White was universally liked. Justice Charles Evans Hughes thought so highly of him that he hung White’s portrait in his own home. A conservative Democrat, White was a close adviser to Taft at the same time he was friendly with the progressive wing of the Republican party, including Theodore Roosevelt. Ironically, though White institutionalized his geniality with the tradition of justices shaking hands before conferences and court sessions as a reminder that they could remain friends despite possibly disagreeing on cases, a common error among scholars is to credit his predecessor as chief justice with that legacy, based only on the supposed word of Felix Frankfurter, the Court’s so-called Emily Post and one of its most disruptive personalities.

Further Reading
  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Baier, Paul R. “‘Father Chief Justice’: E. D. White and the Constitution, A Play.” Louisiana Law Review 58 (1998): 423-447.
  • Ely, James W., Jr. The Fuller Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Highsaw, Robert B. Edward Douglass White: The Defender of the Conservative Faith. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
  • Pederson, William D. “U.S. Chief Justice Edward Douglass White and the Path to Judicial Power.” In Grassroots Constitutionalism, edited by Norman Provizer and William D. Pederson. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988.
  • Shoemaker, Rebecca S. The White Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.
  • Umbreit, Kenneth B. Our Eleven Chief Justices. New York: Harper, 1938.

Hughes, Charles Evans

Rule of reason

Standard Oil Co. v. United States

Virginia v. West Virginia

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