Harlan F. Stone was a Supreme Court Justice, initially one of three judges who voted in the minority regarding Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. When the court shifted in 1937, the three provided opinions that became the foundation for majority opinions. He was confident, yet humble and was tenacious when he defended his opinions.
Born on October 11, 1872, in Chesterfield, New Hampshire, Harlan Fiske Stone was the son of Fred Lauson Stone and Ann Sophia Butler Stone. His family was not wealthy, and the area where he grew up had high levels of poverty. He attended Amherst High School before moving on to Amherst College where he graduated in 1894. While attending Columbia Law School, he impressed his teachers so much that they offered him a faculty position after his graduation in 1898. After passing the bar in 1899, Stone taught at Columbia while practicing law at the firm Satterlee, Canfield & Stone. From 1910 to 1923, he served as the dean of Columbia Law School and lived in The Colosseum, an apartment building close to the campus.
War Department Board of Inquiry
Stone served on the War Department Board of Inquiry for several months during World War I. The Board was tasked with hearing cases of men whose draft boards had denied their conscientious objector status. The Board was provided only a few minutes for interrogating the men and deciding if their principles were sincere. Stone had little sympathy for men who enjoyed the benefits of life in the United States, including the use of postage stamps as a benefit, but did not accept the burdens of being a citizen. In a large majority of the cases, the men chose not to pursue the claim or were judged insincere. Stone said that he believed a large number of citizens focused on the common cause, ignoring their own conscience and opinion, but there was a small faction who refused to yield to the opinions of others. He did recognize that it took strong will to be a conscientious objector during that era, however.
Resignation from Columbia
When the war ended, Stone was outspoken in his criticism of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer who attempted to deport aliens based on administrative action. Stone felt that the aliens should be given a judicial review before deportation. At the time, Columbia Law School began a new thought in jurisprudence known as legal realism. Rather than focus on static legal rules and formalism, the school taught that those who practiced law should search for experiential and human idiosyncrasies when laws were created. Stone, who defended free speech for professors, was viewed as a conservative despite the fact that Stone encouraged those who believed in legal realism. This led to clashes between Stone and Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler. In 1923, claiming he was bored with the “petty details of law administration,” and because he the conflict with Butler had grown tiresome, he resigned as dean of the law school and joined Sullivan & Cromwell, a prestigious Wall Street firm where he was placed in charge of the litigation department at a much higher salary.
His time in private practice did not last long, however. On April 1, 1924, Stone was appointed United States Attorney General by a former classmate, President Calvin Coolidge. President Coolidge felt that the public would view Stone as conscientious and fair in the handling of scandals involving President Warren G. Harding’s Attorney General, Harry M. Daugherty, who had been forced to resign. Immediately, Stone fired anyone connected with Daugherty and replaced them with people of integrity. It was Stone who appointed J. Edgar Hoover to what was then the Bureau of Investigation, but later became the FBI. He tasked Hoover with the job of remodeling the agency so that it operated more like Scotland Yard. He wanted the agency to be as efficient as possible. Stone was an active Attorney General, trying many of the cases himself rather than handing them off to associates. He launched an anti-trust investigation of the Aluminum Company of America, involving the family of Andrew Mellon who served as the Secretary of the Treasury under President Coolidge.
Supreme Court Associate Justice
After President Coolidge was re-elected in 1924, Justice Joseph McKenna resigned from the Supreme Court. When the President approached Stone about serving on the Supreme Court, he suggested that Benjamin J. Cardozo would be a better choice. However, President Coolidge nominated Stone on January 5, 1925. Although his nomination was met with approval for the most part, some senators were concerned that Stone had too many connections on Wall Street. Stone volunteered to answer questions in front of a Senate Judiciary Committee, the first Supreme Court Nominee to do so. This set the model for future confirmation hearings for appointees to federal court. He was confirmed by the Senate with a vote of 71 to 6. Chief Justice William Howard Taft administered the oath on March 2, 1925.
When Stone took his seat on the Supreme Court, the majority of the justices were defenders of business and capitalism. They focused on the fundamental right of liberty to contract when it came to national and state government regulations. Stone was part of the “liberal faction,” one of three judges which included Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Dembitz Brandeis and became known as the Three Musketeers. When Holmes stepped down, Cardozo took his seat and joined the three liberal factions. The three were supportive of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies while the other justices opposed them. Stone wrote an opinion that upheld the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 as well as an opinion which provided a map for judicial review in the future. Stone opposed a ruling that upheld the expulsion of a Jehovah’s Witness from public school when the child refused to salute the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance on religious grounds, a ruling that was later overturned.
Stone’s support of President Roosevelt’s New Deal led the president to nominate him as Chief Justice in 1941. This was unusual as Stone was a Republican and Roosevelt a Democrat, one of only two times a justice has been appointed by a President of the opposing party. He was confirmed in June and took his position on July 3, 1941. Stone spoke for the court when it upheld the President’s power to try Nazi members using military tribunals after capture on American land. He also wrote an opinion that established standards for state courts to have jurisdiction over litigants. Stone felt that the Nuremberg courts defrauded Germans, even though his colleague Robert H. Jackson served as the Chief United States Prosecutor at the trials. Although he often supported the rights of minorities, Stone supported the United States policy of internment for people of Japanese ancestry during World War II.
Stone was married to Agnes Harvey and had two sons, Marshall and Lauson. Marshall, who was expected to become a lawyer like his father, developed a love for mathematics as an undergraduate at Harvard. As a mathematician, Marshall contributed to real and functional analysis as well as topology and the study of Boolean algebra. Lauson followed his father’s footsteps into law, graduating from Columbia University. He was assigned to the War Department as a defense lawyer for eight Nazis accused of sabotage during Operation Pastorius. The saboteurs were to attack economic targets but were betrayed by one of their own members. Throughout his life, Stone tried to balance conflicting impulses. He grew up relatively poor, and this drew him to the comforts that money could provide, including fine wines, but he refused to be extravagant. He remained the Chief Justice until his death from a cerebral hemorrhage on April 22, 1946. President Harry S. Truman said that he should be remembered for his sense of duty, legal learning and the “clarity of his judicial reasoning.”
As part of the liberal minority when he joined the Supreme Court, Stone often wrote dissenting views on decisions. However, as the tone of the court changed over time, Stone found himself in the majority, yet he made his decisions based on his understanding of the law rather than his own personal bias.