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Supreme Court Justice Hugo đen in 1937. Black is is widely considered khổng lồ be one of the most influential justices of his time. Black was a constitutional absolutist on First Amendment issues. (Photo via Library of Congress by Harris & Ewing Photography Firm, Public domain)


Hugo Lafayette black (1886–1971) served on the U.S. Supreme Court for 34 years and is widely considered to be one of the most influential justices of his time, even though his background and unusual path to lớn the Court might have presaged a far more modest impact.

The son of a store owner of modest means, Hugo đen graduated from the University of Alabama & then served as a captain in the army during World War I. After the war, he was a police court judge in rural Alabama before being elected to lớn the U.S. Senate in a landslide in 1926. In the Senate, he was a strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New khuyễn mãi giảm giá — reportedly a factor in his nomination by Roosevelt lớn the Supreme Court to replace Justice Willis Van Devanter in 1937.

Roosevelt selects Hugo đen for the Supreme Court

Because Van Devanter & his conservative colleagues had been wreaking havoc on the New Deal, in 1937 Roosevelt announced a Court Reorganization Plan, but his “Court-packing” scheme was controversial và widely panned. Nevertheless, Senator đen initially supported the plan. When Van Devanter, the first in a string of resignations, left the Court, Roosevelt had a chance to lớn change the composition of the Court, and Black was his first appointee.

Some controversy surrounded Roosevelt’s motivation for selecting Black. Some have argued that Roosevelt nominated black to fulfill a particular agenda: to undermine the legitimacy of the Supreme Court in the wake of his battles with it. Choosing Black, a nondescript populist senator who would almost certainly be confirmed by his colleagues, might lessen the prestige of the Court.

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. đen serves up during a tennis match at the St. Petersburg, Fla., Tennis Club in 1948. Although a former thành viên of the Ku Klux Klan, black renounced the Klan"s beliefs và became a strong supporter of civil rights during his time on the Court. (AP Photo, used with permission from the Associated Press)

Two things, though, seemed fairly certain. First, Roosevelt wanted a supporter of the New Deal, and, second, he recognized that nominating a senator was likely to lớn ensure a relatively easy confirmation. But instead of an immediate confirmation, the unwritten rule for nominations of senators at that point, the matter was turned over lớn the Judiciary Committee.

When his nomination finally made it to the floor of the Senate, đen was confirmed by a vote of 63-16. But shortly after the confirmation, the public learned about Black’s past affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan. On the eve of taking his seat on the Supreme Court, đen went public, explaining that membership in the Klan was a practical necessity lớn enter politics in the South (the KKK supported đen in his Senate campaigns).

Black became a strong supporter of civil rights

He went on khổng lồ say that he had long since renounced the Klan’s beliefs & his membership. đen weathered the storm and eventually became a strong supporter of civil rights. In fact, it became the joke that “as a young man Hugo đen wore trắng robes and scared black people và as an older man, he wore black robes & scared trắng people.”

Black joined with his new colleagues on the Court — among them Felix Frankfurter & William Douglas — to uphold the regulatory schemes of the New giảm giá and strengthen the hand of the central government. Ultimately, the Court developed consistent doctrine in these areas, và then it began to turn its attention to civil rights and individual liberties. It was in these areas that black made his most significant mark.

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Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black, 71, và his bride Elizabeth Demeritte, 49, in Virginia, 1957. Black was an intellectual leader on the Court who often sparred with his colleagues. (AP Photo/Bob Schutz, used with permission from the Associated Press)

Black became an intellectual leader on the Court, often sparring with his colleagues Frankfurter and Robert H. Jackson over important legal và constitutional issues. Indeed, although he was able lớn coexist with Frankfurter, his antipathy for Jackson was well known. Jackson, who had hoped to be elevated lớn chief justice, blamed đen for his presumed efforts to lớn thwart that move.

Black was famous for carrying with him a worn copy of the Constitution và consulting it during conferences with his colleagues. He was considered a literalist or textualist, who believed that “Congress shall make no law” meant no law with respect to lớn the First Amendment. He forcefully rejected the idea of substantive due process, which had been at the center of many of the battles between Roosevelt và the Court prior lớn Black’s appointment. Almost three decades later, this stance led him lớn reject the constitutional right to lớn privacy.

Black led dialogue on incorporation of Bill of Rights

Black was in the vanguard of an emerging constitutional dialogue on the incorporation of the Bill of Rights khổng lồ the states — a move he supported. He argued that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment had effected that application. Black’s dissent in Adamson v. California (1947) was his fullest discourse on this topic. đen maintained until his death that he was proudest of this opinion, although a majority of the Court, while eventually incorporating most provisions of the Bill of Rights through the process of selective incorporation, never adopted his perspective.

Supreme Court Justice Hugo black in his office at the Supreme Court in 1966. Black was an absolutist who fully supported the incorporation of the Bill of Rights to the states through the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. (AP Photo/Charles Gorry, used with permission from the Associated Press)

On First Amendment issues, đen was considered an absolutist. In Dennis v. United States(1951)and similar cases, he dissented from the Supreme Court’s opinion upholding the conviction of leading U.S. Communists under the Smith Act.

But this absolutist stance created some problems for Black. Because he held that only pure speech received this level of protection, in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District(1969)Black dissented from the Court’s decision lớn extend không tính tiền speech protection lớn several students who wore đen armbands to lớn protest the U.S. Involvement in Vietnam.

Some observers have argued that this decision, coming near the kết thúc of Black’s career, was evidence of a growing conservatism in his decision making. But it is more likely that the apparent retreat was the result of the complexity of the later miễn phí expression cases và the nontraditional extensions of the meaning of speech.

Black"s support of press freedom

Black’s tư vấn for freedom of the press was similar khổng lồ his tư vấn for freedom of speech. He authored one of the opinions in thủ đô new york Times Co. V. United States(1971)rejecting prior restraint of the Pentagon Papers.

He concurred in Justice William J. Brennan Jr.’s opinion in thủ đô new york Times Co. V. Sullivan (1965)raising the bar for public officials khổng lồ prove libel.

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Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, Hugo L. Black, right, and Earl Warren are seen on Black"s 80th birthday, Feb. 24, 1966, in Washington. On First Amendment issues, đen used his absolutist stance & supported a relatively strict separation of church và state. (AP Photo, used with permission from the Associated Press)

Black wrote some of most important decisions regarding establishment clause

As for religion, black supported a relatively strict separation of church and state và wrote some of the most important decisions in the establishment clause area, including in Everson v. Board of Education(1947), which incorporated the establishment clause to lớn the states, and in Engel v. Vitale(1962), which disapproved of teacher-led prayer in the public school classroom.

To belie his brief allegiance khổng lồ the Ku Klux Klan, đen was a consistent supporter of civil rights. But that tư vấn in the early cases cost him popularity in his native Alabama. By contrast, black was the tác giả of the controversial opinion in Korematsu v. United States (1944), which supported the government’s internment of Japanese Americans in World War II.

Black resigned from the Court in 1971. Within a week, he suffered a stroke and died a few days later. President Richard Nixon appointed Lewis F. Powell Jr. To lớn take Black’s seat on the Court.

This article was originally written in 2009. Richard L. Pacelle, Jr. Is professor and department head in Political Science at the University of Tennessee. Pacelle’s primary research focus is the Supreme Court. His research includes concerns with policy evolution particularly regarding the First Amendment và the role of policy entrepreneurs in the judiciary, Supreme Court agenda building và decision-making, & inter-branch relations.