Willis Van Devanter

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Willis Van Devanter
Willis Van Devanter.jpg
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
In office
December 16, 1910 – June 2, 1937
Nominated byWilliam Howard Taft
Preceded byEdward Douglass White
Succeeded byHugo Lafayette Black
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
In office
February 4, 1903 – December 16, 1910
Nominated byTheodore Roosevelt
Preceded bySeat established
Succeeded byWalter Smith
Personal details
Born(1859-04-17)April 17, 1859
Marion, Indiana, U.S.
DiedFebruary 8, 1941(1941-02-08) (aged 81)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Delice Burhans
ChildrenIsaac Van Devanter, Winslow Van Devanter
ParentsIsaac Van Devanter, Violetta Van Devanter
EducationUniversity of Cincinnati (LLB)

Willis Van Devanter (April 17, 1859 – February 8, 1941) was an American lawyer who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1910 to 1937.

Early life[edit]

Born in Marion, Indiana, to a family of Dutch Americans, he received a Bachelor of Laws from the Cincinnati Law School in 1881. He was a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and the Knights of Pythias.

Legal, political and state judicial careers[edit]

After three years private practice in Marion, Van Devanter moved to the Wyoming Territory where he became the city attorney of Cheyenne and a member of the territorial legislature. He also served as an attorney to the Wyoming Stock Growers Association during the Johnson County War, managing to strain the local courts' (and county's) budget and delay trials while his clients and their allies worked to make key witnesses and the gunman unavailable, as well as securing favorable press coverage from the state's most influential papers while threatening to sue the Johnson County paper for slander.[1]

At the age of 30, Van Devanter was appointed chief judge of the territorial court.[2] After statehood, he served as Chief Justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court for four days.[3] then resumed private practice for seven years. The Union Pacific and other railroads were among his major clients.

In 1896 Van Devanter represented the state of Wyoming before the U.S. Supreme Court in Ward v. Race Horse 163 U.S. 504 (1896). This involved 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 reversed on appeal to the Supreme Court by a 7–1 majority.[3][4][5]

From 1897 to 1903 Van Devanter 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 remained available to hear cases in the lower courts until his death and presided over civil trials.[6]

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,[7] 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.[7] He was anti-Semitic but less openly so than McReynolds, who refused to interact with or speak to eventual Jewish Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter; Van Devanter's interactions with them were non-fractious. His opinion in United States v. Sandoval (1913) held that because the New Mexico Pueblos were "intellectually and morally inferior" and "easy victims to the evils and debasing influence of intoxicants" they were subject to restrictions on alcohol sales in Indian Country.[8] The decision has since been the basis for Pueblo self-government and protection of tribal lands.[9]

Van Devanter had chronic writer's block[10]—even characterized as "pen paralysis"[11]—and, as a result, he wrote fewer opinions than any of his brethren, averaging three a term during his last decade on the Court.[12] He rarely wrote on constitutional issues.[11] However, he was widely respected as an expert on judicial procedure. In December 1921, Chief Justice Taft appointed him, along with Justices McReynolds and Sutherland, to draw up a proposal that would amend the nation's Judicial code and which would define further the jurisdiction of the nation's circuit courts. Known widely as "the Judges' Bill", it retained mandatory jurisdiction over cases that raised questions regarding federal jurisdiction. It called for the circuit courts of appeal to have appellate jurisdiction to review "by appeal or writ of error" final decisions in the district courts, as well as for the district courts for Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, China, the Virgin Islands and the Canal Zone. The circuit courts were also empowered to modify, enforce or set aside orders of the Federal Communications Commission, the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Trade Commission. The proposed bill further provided that 'a final judgment or decree in any suit in the highest court of a state in which a decision in the suit could be had, "where is drawn in question the validity of a treaty or statute of the United States may be reviewed by the Supreme Court on a writ of error." Lastly, cases involving final decrees which brought into question the validity of a wide range of Federal or state treaties would come to the Court by certiorari. Four justices would be required to vote affirmatively to accept petitions, which meant that the Court's agenda would now by enrolled by "judicial review." The Chief Justice, together with the three Justices, made repeated trips to Congress, and in 1925, after two years of debate, the new Code was passed.

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,[7] after Congress voted full pay for justices over seventy who retired.[13] 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.[3] In 1932, five years prior to Van Devanter's retirement, Congress had halved Supreme Court pensions.[14] Congress had temporarily restored them to full pay in February 1933,[14] only to halve them again next month by the Economy Act.[15] He was the last serving Supreme Court Justice appointed by President Taft. Van Devanter was replaced by Justice Hugo Black, appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.[16]

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.[17][18]

At the turn of the century, Willis 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 Oklahoma 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. Willis Van Devanter was a keen sportsman who enjoyed hunting and fishing.[19]

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. ^ Gorsuch, Neil (2019). A Republic, If You Can Keep It. New York: Crown Forum. ISBN 9780525576785. p. 239-240
  2. ^ a b Willis Van Devanter at Supreme Court Historical Society.
  3. ^ a b c 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. ^ Barnes, "Retired Supreme Court Justices Still Judge – and Get Judged," Washington Post (March 10, 2013).
  7. ^ a b c Ball, Howard. Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. Oxford University Press. 2006. ISBN 0-19-507814-4. Page 89.
  8. ^ 231 U.S. 28, 34 S.Ct. 1 (1913).
  9. ^ See generally Gerald Torres, Who is an Indian?: The Story of United States v. Sandoval in INDIAN LAW STORIES (Goldberg, et. al. eds.)
  10. ^ citation needed; "pen paralysis" means writer's cramp
  11. ^ a b William Van Devanter at Oyez.org
  12. ^ Ball, Howard (1996). Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 89. ISBN 0-19-507814-4. OCLC 32511064.
  13. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20101214202743/http://freeuniv.com/lect/rankin/Unit7B.htm. Archived from the original on December 14, 2010. Retrieved February 10, 2011. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  14. ^ a b Oliver Wendell Holmes: law and the inner self, G. Edward White pg. 469
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ Ball, Howard. Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. Oxford University Press. 2006. ISBN 0-19-507814-4. Page 93.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ " 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
New seat Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
Succeeded by
Walter Smith
Preceded by
Edward White
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Succeeded by
Hugo Black