Mahlon Pitney

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Mahlon Pitney
Mahlon Pitney cph.3b30300.jpg
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
In office
March 18, 1912 – December 31, 1922[1]
Nominated byWilliam Taft
Preceded byJohn Marshall Harlan
Succeeded byEdward Terry Sanford
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New Jersey's 4th district
In office
March 4, 1895 – January 10, 1899
Preceded byJohnston Cornish
Succeeded byJoshua Salmon
Personal details
Born(1858-02-05)February 5, 1858
Morristown, New Jersey, U.S.
DiedDecember 9, 1924(1924-12-09) (aged 66)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political partyRepublican
Florence Shelton
(m. 1891)
EducationPrinceton University (BA)

Mahlon R. Pitney IV (February 5, 1858 – December 9, 1924) was an American lawyer, jurist, and Republican Party politician who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for two terms from 1895 to 1899. He later served as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1912 to 1922.

Early life and education[edit]

The American Pitney family dates back to 1720 when two Scots—Johnathan and James Pitney—settled the Pitney farm in Mendham, NJ. James's son Mahlon Pitney fought in the American Revolution alongside General George Washington. Mahlon Pitney IV was born in Morristown, New Jersey, the son of Sarah Louise (née Halsted) and Henry Cooper Pitney. He attended the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, where he was a classmate of Woodrow Wilson and served as manager of the campus baseball team. Upon graduation in 1879, he read law[2] at his father's practice. Pitney passed the bar exam in 1882 and set up a private practice in Dover, working for a time in partnership with his brother, John Oliver Halstead Pitney.

He returned to Morristown in 1889 to assume control of his father's law firm, after Henry Pitney was appointed to a judgeship. Pitney married Florence Shelton in 1891. The couple had three children, and both of their sons attended Princeton University and later entered into the field of law. Pitney was the great-grandfather of actor Christopher Reeve on Reeve’s mother’s side, as well as his step great-grandfather on his father’s side. Christopher Reeve’s maternal grandmother was Beatrice Pitney, and his paternal grandmother married Mahlon Pitney IV.[3]

Political career[edit]

In 1894, Pitney ran for the United States House of Representatives. He defeated one-term incumbent Johnston Cornish for the seat from New Jersey's 4th congressional district, and he was reelected to a second term two years later. Pitney served as chairman of the 1895 state Republican convention and pushed for the nomination of John W. Griggs as party gubernatorial candidate. A rising star in state politics, Pitney aspired to be elected as governor. In order to further improve his local standing, he resigned from the House prior to the end of his second term and ran for election to the New Jersey Senate. Pitney was victorious in this 1889 race. In the legislature, he took on the role of party floor leader; after the 1900 election swayed body control to the Republicans, Pitney became Senate President.

Judicial career[edit]

Despite Pitney’s desire to become the state’s chief executive, Governor Foster M. Voorhees supported a different candidate as his successor. In 1901 Voorhees offered Pitney a seat on the New Jersey Supreme Court, which rid Voorhees of a political rival while maintaining party unity. Seven years later, Pitney was elevated to the role of Chancellor of New Jersey, a unique judicial position under the state's 1844 constitution.

Supreme Court of the United States[edit]

Pitney at his home in Washington, D.C. in 1913, during his term on the Supreme Court[4]

Pitney was nominated by President William Howard Taft on February 19, 1912 to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States,[5] to succeed John Marshall Harlan. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 13, 1912, by a 50–26 vote,[5] and was sworn into office on March 18, 1912.[1] Although confirmed by a wide margin, the nomination was opposed by progressives. This hostility was particularly due to Pitney's decision while serving as chancellor in Jones Glass Co. v. Glass Bottle Blowers Association, which limited the ability of unions to prevent their employers from using strikebreakers.

During his time on the court, Pitney developed a relatively conservative reputation and was an adherent of the judicial philosophy of substantive due process. This belief was exemplified in his majority opinion in Coppage v. Kansas, where, in ruling unconstitutional a Kansas statute banning anti-union yellow-dog contracts, the court stated that police power could not be legitimately utilized to ensure equality of bargaining power. Although distrustful of unions, Pitney also feared the rampant expansion of business and supported a broader use of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Justice Pitney authored the majority opinion in New York Central Railroad Co. v. White, in which the Court upheld a New York state workman's compensation law and laid the foundation for the expansion of these programs nationwide. He also wrote the controversial majority opinion in Frank v. Mangum, which upheld the wrongful 1915 murder conviction of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman, in Atlanta, Georgia, over the dissents of Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Charles Evans Hughes.

Pitney resigned from the court in 1922 after suffering a stroke. Alongside Willis Van Devanter, Pitney was one of only two Supreme Court Justices nominated by President Taft who also later served during Taft's tenure as chief justice.

Death and legacy[edit]

Pitney died in 1924 in Washington, D.C., and was interred at Evergreen Cemetery, in Morristown, New Jersey.[4]

When asked which twentieth-century Supreme Court justice "has done the most to protect the core Constitutional values," Richard Epstein cited Justice Pitney, calling him "a great justice" and "the only consistent near-libertarian on the Supreme Court."[6]


  1. ^ a b "Justices 1789 to Present". Washington, D.C.: Supreme Court of the United States. Retrieved February 15, 2022.
  2. ^ "Pitney, Mahlon at the Federal Judicial Register". Retrieved 2019-12-29.
  3. ^ Ancestry of Christopher Reeve Archived 2007-09-30 at the Wayback Machine. William Addams Reitwiesner Genealogical Services. Accessed September 23, 2007.
  4. ^ a b "Obituary: Mahlon Pitney". Montclair Times. 13 Dec 1924. Retrieved 5 May 2022.
  5. ^ a b McMillion, Barry J. (January 28, 2022). Supreme Court Nominations, 1789 to 2020: Actions by the Senate, the Judiciary Committee, and the President (PDF) (Report). Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service. Retrieved February 15, 2022.
  6. ^ Law Talk Episode 37: Recess Appointments 2/3/2013[permanent dead link]

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New Jersey's 4th congressional district

Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by President of the New Jersey Senate
Succeeded by
C. Asa Francis
Legal offices
Preceded by Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Succeeded by