The Supreme Court

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1902-1932)

President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Oliver Wendell Holmes to the United States Supreme Court in 1902. Prior to that time, Holmes served as a Massachusetts Supreme Court judge and taught at Harvard College. Holmes also served on the Twentieth Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War and was wounded three times.

He received his degree from Harvard Law School in 1867, but his law practice was never very successful. He gained his fame when he was invited to give a series of lectures at the Lowell Institute, which were published in a book called The Common Law in 1881. The Lowell Institute was established in Boston in 1836 to bring distinguished lecturers to the city.

Holmes was known for both his intellect and humor. He strongly believed in the principle that law was built on experiences and not logic. He believed it was important to look at the facts of a changing society rather than to cling to old slogans and formulas. Holmes worked to convince people that the law should develop along with the society it serves. He also championed the idea of “judicial restraint” because he believed judges should avoid letting their personal opinions impact their decisions.

Photograph of Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes by Harris and Ewing.

Photograph of Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes by Harris and Ewing.(From the Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Supreme Sayings

“The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience. The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, institutions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow men, have had a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed. The law embodies the story of a nation's development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics.”

—From the first of 12 Lowell Lectures delivered by Oliver Wendell Holmes on November 23, 1880

Lochner v. New York

Some of Holmes' most famous writings as a Supreme Court Justice are pulled from his dissents on landmark cases. Two of those we discussed in the preceding section.

The first is Lochner v. New York. In that case the Supreme Court overturned a New York law that mandated maximum work hours for bakers. Holmes dissented on that decision and said:

Adkins v. Children's Hospital

The second case (discussed in the previous section) also involved legislation that tried to mandate working conditions, Adkins v. Children's Hospital. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could not establish minimum wage rates. Holmes disagreed and wrote this in his dissent:

Abrams v. United States

Another famous Holmes dissent was in the case of Abrams v. United States in 1923. This case involved the publishing of two political publications during World War I that supported the Germans.

Just the Facts

All five of the defendants in Abrams v. United States were born in Russia. They lived in the United States for 5 to 10 years, but none had applied for citizenship. Four of the defendants admitted they were rebels, revolutionists, and anarchists who did not believe in government in any form. One did testify that he believed in a socialist government, but not a capitalist government like that of the United States.

The Supreme Court held that these publications were unlawful on the basis that the information was:

This time his dissent was signed by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who we'll discuss next. They often dissented jointly while on the court together. Holmes said:

Buck v. Bell

Holmes was also known for facing some darker moments. One of his worst decisions was Buck v. Bell in 1927. This case involved the right of the state of Virginia to sterilize a “feeble-minded white woman“ against her will. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing the sterilization. Holmes wrote the Court's opinion and said:

This ruling did not sit long on the books. The first move to overturn was in 1942 in the case Skinner v. Oklahoma, which involved an Oklahoma law that allowed forced sterilization of habitual criminals. Skinner was an armed robber and chicken thief. The Supreme Court decided in favor of Skinner, ruling that procreation was a “fundamental right of man” and that forcible sterilization violated Skinner's Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Holmes resigned from the court in January 1932 after serving for 29 years. He left the court at the age of 90 and died three years later in March 1935 just four days before his 94th birthday.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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