David J. Brewer: The Life of a Supreme Court Justice, 1837-1910

David J. Brewer: The Life of a Supreme Court Justice, 1837-1910

David J. Brewer: The Life of a Supreme Court Justice, 1837-1910

David J. Brewer: The Life of a Supreme Court Justice, 1837-1910

Synopsis

This is the first biography of David J. Brewer, an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1889 to 1910.

Prior to rising to the nation's highest tribunal, Brewer served as a county probate judge, a state district judge, a Kansas State Supreme Court justice, and a federal circuit court judge. He was known not only for his long tenure on the Supreme Court but also for his numerous off-the-bench statements as an orator and writer.

Many of Brewer's judicial opinions and nonjudicial utterances created controversy, particularly when he confronted the reform issues of his day. The court, then presided over by Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller, has been seen as reactionary, determined to infuse the law with social Darwinism and laissez-faire ideology. Yet, contrary to this assessment of the Fuller Court as a whole, Brewer accepted most of his generation's reform goals. He championed many forms of social legislation, the regulation of business, the rights of women and minorities, the support of charities, educational reform, and world peace.

Michael J. Brodhead contends that until recently historians have carelessly and inaccurately created a false image of Brewer, partly by citing a small sample of his opinions and public statements as representative of his alleged conservatism. They have also assumed that the disputable decisions of Brewer and his contemporaries were based on ideological predilections and that precedent and recognized legal principles played no role.

During his term, Brewer was the author of such notable court opinions as In re Debs, Muller v. Oregon, and Kansas v. Colorado. He supported property rights, admired honest entrepreneurial activity, and opposed the concentration of power in any form. Brewer favored the individual in all instances, whether that individual was the initiator of a great economic enterprise or a farmer struggling to extend agriculture into the western plains.

Excerpt

In January of 1893, at the beginning of his fourth year as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, David Josiah Brewer addressed the Kansas Bar Association. With understandable pride, he pointed to his professional life as a judge of a court of record for thirty years. "Few men in the United States have had as long, and I think it is very doubtful if there is a single one who has had a more varied career on the bench than I. There is scarcely any judicial position which I have not filled; scarcely any service in the profession which I have not been called upon to discharge." He had been a judge of a county criminal and probate court, and of a state district court and a federal circuit court, as well as a justice of the supreme court of Kansas. "In addition, I served on a petit jury, was once foreman of a grand jury, have been U.S. Commissioner, and prosecuting attorney, to say nothing of filling up odd times with such little services as master in chancery, and the like."

No member of the Supreme Court has ever come to the High Bench with a richer judicial background. Previous service as a jurist is not a prerequisite for appointment to the Court nor a guarantee of success as a member of it; several of its most notable justices had no prior judicial experience. But in Brewer's case, a long career on other tribunals was an asset, both for himself and the Court presided over by Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller. His life presents a unique opportunity for viewing the American judicial system and one man's passage from its lowest to its highest levels.

Brewer became the member of the Fuller Court best known to the American people at the time, not merely by virtue of his long tenure on it but largely because of his many off-the-bench statements as an orator and writer. His public visibility did not translate into popularity in all quarters. Several of his judicial opinions and nonjudicial utterances stirred up controversy, particularly when he confronted the reform issues of his day.

Historical treatments of the Fuller Court have readily dismissed it as a pack of reactionaries, hell-bent on infusing the law with social . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.