Justice Pierce Butler

On this date in 1922, Justice Pierce Butler was nominated by President Warren G. Harding as an Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court for the seat vacated by the retiring Justice William Day (See November 13th entry). Butler was born to immigrant Irish parents in Dakota County, Minnesota on March 17, 1866. He graduated from Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota, but did not attend law school. He “read the law” as was permitted in those days and was admitted to the Minnesota bar in 1888. In the 1892, Butler was elected County Attorney for Ramsey County, Minnesota and served two terms. He practiced law in St. Paul, Minnesota where he concentrated on representing railroad and corporations in litigation. In 1908, he was elected president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. He befriended President William Howard Taft, who would become Chief Justice (1921-1930), and supported his appointment to the Court. On the Court, Butler was known as a strong conservative who advocated minimizing government interference in the economy. In his early years on the Court, his “laissez faire” philosophy enjoyed considerable favor and he was one of the members of the bloc of justices known as the Four Horsemen. As the 1930’s went on and membership on the Court changed, Butler found that he was increasingly in the minority. In dissent in 1939, he wrote “[t]his is not government by law, but by caprice. Whimseys may displace deliberate action by chosen representatives and become rules of conduct. To us the outcome seems wholly incompatible with the system under which we are supposed to live.” (U.S. v. Rock Royal Co-op, 307 U.S. 533). Justice Pierce Butler died at age 73 from bladder cancer on November 16, 1939 in Washington, D.C. while still serving on the Supreme Court. In his last three years on the Court, he dissented 73 times from opinions issued by the Court, which constituted half of the total number of cases he dissented from during his 17 years on the bench. After his passing, one observer noted that “he did not change, the frontiers changed and perhaps this quality of steadfast resistance to a different world was what Justice Holmes had in mind when he spoke of his as a ‘monolith'”.