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Willis Van Devanter
Willis Van Devanter.jpg
Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court
In office
December 16, 1910 – June 2, 1937
Nominated by William Howard Taft
Preceded by Edward Douglass White
Succeeded by Hugo Black
Personal details
Born (1859-04-17)April 17, 1859
Marion, Indiana
Died February 8, 1941(1941-02-08) (aged 81)
Washington, D.C.
Spouse(s) Delice Burhans
Religion Episcopal [1]

Willis Van Devanter (April 17, 1859 – February 8, 1941) was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, January 3, 1911 to June 2, 1937.

Early life and career[edit]

Born in Marion, Indiana, he received a LL.B. from the Cincinnati Law School in 1881. He was a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and the Knights of Pythias. After three years private practice in Marion, he moved to the Wyoming Territory where he served as city attorney of Cheyenne, Wyoming and a member of the territorial legislature. At the age of 30, he was appointed chief judge of the territorial court.[2] Upon statehood, he served as Chief Justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court for four days,.[3] and again took up private practice for seven years, including much work for the Union Pacific and other railroads.

In 1896 he represented the state of Wyoming before the U.S. Supreme Court in Ward v. Race Horse 163 U.S. 504 (1896). At issue was a state poaching charge for hunting out of season, and its purported conflict with an Indian treaty that allowed the activity. The Native Americans won in the U.S. Federal District Court; the judgment was revised on appeal to the Supreme Court by a 7-1 majority.[3][4][5]

In the summer and fall of 1896, Van Devanter was afflicted with typhoid fever.[3] From 1896 to 1900 he served in Washington, D.C. as an assistant attorney general, working in the Department of Interior. He was also a professor at The George Washington University Law School from 1897 to 1903.

Federal judicial service[edit]

On February 4, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt nominated Van Devanter to a seat on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals created by 32 Stat. 791. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on February 18, 1903, and received his commission the same day.

In 1910, William Howard Taft elevated him to the Supreme Court. Taft nominated Van Devanter on December 12, 1910 to the Associate Justice seat vacated by Edward D. White. Three days later, Van Devanter was confirmed by the United States Senate on December 15, 1910,[2] and received his commission the following day. Van Devanter assumed senior status on June 2, 1937, one of the first Supreme Court Justices to do so. Although no longer on the Court at that point, he technically remained available to hear cases until his death.

Supreme Court tenure[edit]

On the court, he made his mark in opinions on public lands, Indian questions, water rights, admiralty, jurisdiction, and corporate law, but is best remembered for his opinions defending limited government in the 1920s and 1930s. He served for over twenty-five years,[6] and voted against the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (United States v. Butler), the National Recovery Administration (Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States), federal regulation of labor relations (National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp.), the Railway Pension Act (Railroad Retirement Board v. Alton Railroad), unemployment insurance (Steward Machine Co. v. Davis), and the minimum wage (West Coast Hotel v. Parrish). For his conservatism, he was known as one of the Four Horsemen, along with Pierce Butler, James Clark McReynolds, and George Sutherland; the four would dominate the Supreme Court for over two decades.[6]

Van Devanter had chronic writer's block[7]—even characterized as "pen paralysis"[8]—and, as a result, he wrote fewer opinions than any of his brethren, averaging three a term during his last decade on the Court.[9] He rarely wrote on constitutional issues.[8] However, he was widely respected as an expert on judicial procedure. He was largely responsible for the 1925 legislation that allowed the Supreme Court greater control over its own docket through the certiorari procedure.

Retirement and final years[edit]

Van Devanter's former residence in Washington, D.C.

Van Devanter retired as a Supreme Court Justice on May 18, 1937,[6] after Congress voted full pay for justices over seventy who retired.[10][dead link] He acknowledged that he might have retired five years earlier due to illness, if not for his concern about New Deal legislation, and that he depended upon his salary for sustenance.[3] In 1932, five years prior to Van Devanter's retirement, Congress had halved Supreme Court pensions.[11] Congress had temporarily restored them to full pay in February 1933,[11] only to see them halved again the next month by the Economy Act.[12] Van Devanter was replaced by Justice Hugo Black, appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.[13]

He died in Washington, D.C., and was buried there in Rock Creek Cemetery. His gravesite is marked by "a stark 'VAN DEVANTER' — nothing else" which tops the family plot.[14][15] However, his grave does have his name and dates on the stone.[16]

At the turn of the century, William Van Devanter purchased Pate Island in the Woods Bay area of Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada. He owned it until it was sold about 1939 to Senator Dennis. T. Flynn of Oaklahoma City. He and his wife Dolly enjoyed their summers in an area that was a favorite summer retreat for members of the American legal fraternity. William Van Devanter was a keen sportsman who enjoyed hunting and fishing.[17]

Van Devanter's personal and judicial papers are archived at the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, where they are available for research.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://www.adherents.com/adh_sc.html
  2. ^ a b Willis Van Devanter at Supreme Court Historical Society.
  3. ^ a b c d Made in Wyoming, Willis VanDevanter.
  4. ^ Ward vs. Race Horse, syllabus courtesy of justia.com.
  5. ^ Ward vs. Race Horse, full text opinion courtesy of justia.com.
  6. ^ a b c Ball, Howard. Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. Oxford University Press. 2006. ISBN 0-19-507814-4. Page 89.
  7. ^ citation needed; "pen paralysis" means writer's cramp
  8. ^ a b William Van devanter at Oyez.org
  9. ^ Ball, Howard (1996). Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 89. ISBN 0-19-507814-4. OCLC 32511064. 
  10. ^ http://www.freeuniv.com/lect/rankin/Unit7B.htm
  11. ^ a b Oliver Wendell Holmes: law and the inner self, G. Edward White pg. 469
  12. ^ McKenna, Marian Cecilia. Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Constitutional War: The Court-Packing Crisis of 1937. New York: Fordham University, 2002, p. 35-36, 335-336.
  13. ^ Ball, Howard. Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. Oxford University Press. 2006. ISBN 0-19-507814-4. Page 93.
  14. ^ Christensen, George A. (1983) Here Lies the Supreme Court: Gravesites of the Justices, Yearbook at the Wayback Machine (archived September 3, 2005) Supreme Court Historical Society at Internet Archive.
  15. ^ See also, Christensen, George A., Here Lies the Supreme Court: Revisited, Journal of Supreme Court History, Volume 33 Issue 1, Pages 17 - 41 (19 Feb 2008), University of Alabama.
  16. ^ Willis Van Devanter memorial at Find a Grave.
  17. ^ " MacMahon, Paul." Island Odyssey A History of the Sans Souci Area of Georgian Bay. Toronto: D. W. Friesen& Sons Ltd., 1990, Pages:236,237

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
New seat
Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
Succeeded by
Walter Inglewood Smith
Preceded by
Edward Douglass White
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
January 3, 1911 – June 2, 1937
Succeeded by
Hugo Black

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willis_Van_Devanter — Please support Wikipedia.
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Reason (blog)
Sat, 19 Jul 2014 08:00:28 -0700

Writing at The Washington Post, Yale University law professor Jack Balkin says it's time for liberals to "reclaim the Constitution." The modern right, Balkin contends, has hoodwinked much of the country into believing that the American constitutional ...

Constitution Daily (blog)

Constitution Daily (blog)
Wed, 05 Feb 2014 03:12:56 -0800

A key conservative justice, Willis Van Devanter, also decided to retire. And by July 1937, the Senate tabled the court-packing debate for good. Its chief lobbyist in the Senate, Majority Leader Joe Robinson, died of a heart attack. Robinson had fought ...
Washington Post
Sun, 10 Mar 2013 14:56:13 -0700

He served on all of the nation's geographic circuits. Clark and Willis Van Devanter, the first justice to take advantage of senior status, also presided over trials as district judges. Justice Lewis F. Powell regularly heard cases on the U.S. Court of ...
The Atlantic
Wed, 09 Oct 2013 06:33:26 -0700

Along with fellow conservatives James Clark McReynolds, Willis Van Devanter, and Pierce Butler, Sutherland struck down one major New Deal piece of legislation after another. In 1935, the Farm Bankruptcy Act fell. So did the Coal Conservation Act. And ...

Slate Magazine

Slate Magazine
Fri, 21 Jun 2013 07:27:19 -0700

That change was the most profound shift in the Supreme Court at least since 1937, when New Dealer Hugo L. Black replaced old guard conservative Willis Van Devanter in 1937. With Justice O'Connor's opinion allowing affirmative action to continue in the ...


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Washington Post
Fri, 22 Jun 2012 13:59:44 -0700

But disaster was averted when Roberts voted to support a critical New Deal case and “Horseman” Justice Willis Van Devanter retired — the “switch in time that saved nine” moment for the court. However, Roosevelt may have had the right idea for the ...
The Atlantic
Wed, 04 Apr 2012 09:06:10 -0700

But he won the war over much of his landmark legislation when the Court's conservatives either retired (Justice Willis Van Devanter) or timely changed their minds (Justice Owen Roberts). President Barack Obama's struggles with the current Court are ...

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