Willis Van Devanter
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
In office
January 3, 1911 – June 2, 1937
Nominated byWilliam Howard Taft
Preceded byEdward Douglass White
Succeeded byHugo 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.
Resting placeRock Creek Cemetery
Political partyRepublican
SpouseDelice Burhans
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 1911 to 1937.[1] He was a staunch conservative and was regarded as a part of the Four Horsemen, the conservative bloc which dominated the Supreme Court during the 1930s.

Early life

Van Devanter was born in Marion, Indiana, to a family of Dutch Americans. He attended Indiana Asbury University (now DePauw University) from 1875 to 1878 before earning 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

In 1884, Van Devanter moved to the Wyoming Territory where he became the city attorney of Cheyenne. He served on a commission to revise the statutes of Wyoming Territory in 1886, and as a member of the territorial legislature in 1888.[2] He also served as an attorney to the Wyoming Stock Growers Association during the 1889–93 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.[3]

He served as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Wyoming from 1889 to 1890,[2] then resumed his private law practice. 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.[4][5][6]

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 George Washington University Law School from 1897 to 1903.

Federal judicial service

Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals

On February 4, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt nominated Van Devanter to a newly created seat on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on February 18, 1903, and received his commission the same day.[2]

United States Supreme Court

On December 12, 1910, President William Howard Taft nominated Van Devanter as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, to a seat vacated by Edward D. White.[2] He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on December 15, 1910,[7] He was sworn into office on January 3, 1911.[1]

Van Devanter's former DC residence at 2108 Wyoming Avenue NW

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,[8] 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, until the early 1930s.[8] He was antisemitic but less openly so than McReynolds, who refused to interact with or speak to eventual Jewish Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis, Benjamin N. Cardozo, 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.[9] The decision has since been the basis for Pueblo self-government and protection of tribal lands.[10]

Van Devanter had chronic "pen paralysis",[11] and, as a result, he wrote fewer opinions than the other justices, averaging three a term during his last decade on the Court.[8] 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 be 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

Van Devanter's influence began to wane in the early 1930s with the departures of Chief Justice Taft and Justice Sanford and he ultimately retired from the Supreme Court on June 2, 1937,[1][2] after Congress voted full pay for justices over seventy who retired.[12] 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.[4] In 1932, five years prior to Van Devanter's retirement, Congress had halved Supreme Court pensions.[13] Congress had temporarily restored them to full pay in February 1933,[13] only to halve them again next month by the Economy Act.[14] He was the last serving Supreme Court Justice appointed by President Taft. Van Devanter was replaced by Hugo Black.[15]

After retirement, he lived on a 700 acres (280 ha) farm near Ellicott City, Maryland.[16][17] He also remained available to hear cases in the lower courts and presided over civil trials.[18]

At the turn of the century, Van Devanter purchased Pate Island in the Woods Bay area along Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada. There he enjoyed hunting and fishing.[19]

Van Devanter died in Washington, D.C., on February 8, 1941,[2] and is buried there in Rock Creek Cemetery.[20] His personal and judicial papers are archived at the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.

See also


  1. ^ a b c "Justices 1789 to Present". Washington, D.C.: Supreme Court of the United States. Retrieved February 15, 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Van Devanter, Willis". Washington, D.C.: Federal Judicial Center. Retrieved February 15, 2022.
  3. ^ Gorsuch, Neil (2019). A Republic, If You Can Keep It. New York: Crown Forum. ISBN 9780525576785. p. 239-240
  4. ^ a b Made in Wyoming, Willis VanDevanter.[permanent dead link]
  5. ^ Ward vs. Race Horse, syllabus courtesy of Archived 2010-09-04 at the Wayback Machine justia.com.
  6. ^ Ward vs. Race Horse, full text opinion courtesy of Archived 2010-09-04 at the Wayback Machine justia.com.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ a b c Ball, Howard. Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. Oxford University Press. 2006. ISBN 0-19-507814-4. Page 89.
  9. ^ 231 U.S. 28, 34 S.Ct. 1 (1913).
  10. ^ See generally Gerald Torres, Who is an Indian?: The Story of United States v. Sandoval in INDIAN LAW STORIES (Goldberg, et al. eds.)
  11. ^ a b William Van Devanter at Archived 2018-01-29 at the Wayback Machine Oyez.org
  12. ^ "Roosevelt's New Deal". Archived from the original on December 14, 2010. Retrieved February 10, 2011.
  13. ^ a b Oliver Wendell Holmes: law and the inner self, G. Edward White pg. 469
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Ball, Howard. Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. Oxford University Press. 2006. ISBN 0-19-507814-4. Page 93.
  16. ^ "Van Devanter is 79". The New York Times. April 18, 1938. Retrieved February 15, 2022.
  17. ^ Cushman, Clare (August 20, 2013). "What they did on summer vacation". scotusblog.com. Retrieved February 15, 2022.
  18. ^ Barnes, Robert (March 10, 2013). "Retired Supreme Court Justices Still Judge – and Get Judged". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 15, 2022.
  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
  20. ^ Christensen, George A. "Here Lies the Supreme Court: Gravesites of the Justices". Yearbook 1983 Supreme Court Historical Society (1983). Washington, D.C.: Supreme Court Historical Society: 17–30. Archived from the original on September 3, 2005. Retrieved February 15, 2022 – via Internet Archive.

Further reading

Legal offices New seat Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit 1903–1910 Succeeded byWalter Smith Preceded byEdward White Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States 1911–1937 Succeeded byHugo Black