Whittaker, Charles E. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During five years on the Supreme Court, Whittaker functioned as a swing vote until forced to retire because of ill health.

Whittaker was born on a farm near Troy, Kansas, in 1901. Press coverage of a notorious murder case sparked his interest in law, but he dropped out of school after the death of his mother. A few years later, he renewed his ambition to become a lawyer. He was admitted to law school on the condition that he complete his high school requirements during law school. He graduated as valedictorian of his class.Eisenhower, Dwight D.;nominations to the Court

Charles E. Whittaker

(Abdon Dacud Ackad/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Whittaker was a successful lawyer in Kansas City, Missouri, for thirty years before becoming a judge. He represented many prominent businesses, including the Kansas City Star newspaper. The publisher of the Star, Roy Roberts, was a charter member of the group that encouraged Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for the presidency. With Roberts’s support, Whittaker was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri and two years later to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Whittaker spent only nine months on the Eighth Circuit before Eisenhower named him to the Supreme Court.

Whittaker, although politically conservative, did not vote along strictly ideological lines. He decided each case on its individual merits, seeking to master the facts and to apply the law to those facts as neutrally as possible. This approach often made Whittaker a swing vote. Sometimes he would join more liberal members of the Court, such as in Trop v. Dulles[case]Trop v. Dulles[Trop v. Dulles] (1958), in which the majority held that Congress could not take away a person’s citizenship for wartime military desertion, but other times he joined the conservative members of the Court. Perhaps the most enduring of his opinions is his concurrence in Gomillion v. Lightfoot[case]Gomillion v. Lightfoot[Gomillion v. Lightfoot] (1960), in which he applied the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to voting rights. His view later became the dominant one on the Court.

Whittaker was hospitalized in 1962 because of physical and mental exhaustion. His strenuous work routine and the seriousness of his responsibilities as a member of the Court had taken a heavy toll on his mind and health. He retired from the Court and later became an arbitrator for General Motors in disputes with its dealers. He died in 1973 from heart failure.

Further Reading
  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Friedman, Leon. “Charles Whittaker.” In The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions, edited by Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel. Vol. 4. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
  • Kohn, Alan C. “Charles Whittaker.” In The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789-1995, edited by Clare Cushman. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1995.
  • Miller, Richard Lawrence. Whittaker: Struggles of a Supreme Court Justice. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.
  • Smith, Craig Alan. Failing Justice: Charles Evans Whittaker on the Supreme Court. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2005.
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. The Warren Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2001.
  • Woeste, Victoria Saker. “Charles Evans Whittaker.” In The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Melvin I. Urofsky. New York: Garland, 1994.

Disability of justices

Gomillion v. Lightfoot

Lower federal courts

Resignation and retirement

Trop v. Dulles

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