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Portrait of Charles Evans Hughes
Portrait of Charles Evans Hughes.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.

Charles Evans Hughes

b. April 11, 1862, Glen Falls, NY
d. August 27, 1948, Osterville, MA

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Eleventh Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

The son of a minister who immigrated from Wales, Charles Evans Hughes was a precocious child and was largely homeschooled. He had a photographic memory, was a prodigiously rapid reader, and was a diligent, even compulsive, worker. He attended Madison University (now Colgate) and Brown University, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1881. He attended Columbia Law School, graduating first in his class in 1884. For the next 20 years, except for two years teaching at Cornell, he practiced law in New York City, working in the Wall Street firm of Walter S. Carter, whose daughter he married. In 1905 he won a popular reputation for honesty for his investigation of unfair practices by gas utilities and the insurance industry. In 1906 he was elected Governor of New York State; he served until 1910, when he was appointed to the Supreme Court by President William Howard Taft.

Hughes remained an associate justice until 1916, when he was drafted by the Republican Party to run against Woodrow Wilson for the presidency of the United States. Though somewhat austere (he once commented that the public viewed him as "a human icicle"), he lost by only 23 electoral votes out of a total of 531. After returning briefly to private practice, Hughes was made secretary of state in 1921 by President Warren G. Harding, and he served in that position until 1925, when he resumed private practice. On the death of Chief Justice William Howard Taft in 1930, President Herbert Hoover nominated Hughes to succeed him.

Hughes was widely respected for his intellect, and, despite a certain aloofness, his social skills served him well on the often fractious Court. After the onset of the Great Depression and the election of Franklin Roosevelt as president, the Supreme Court placed itself at the center of controversy by thwarting the government's attempts to create social welfare programs. Though Hughes was progressive on matters of race and sympathetic to Roosevelt's New Deal policies, he sided with Court conservatives in striking down several key pieces of legislation. He provided a swing vote on the Court and sometimes sided with the minority against the conservative majority, whose core consisted of four justices termed the "Four Horsemen" by contemptuous New Dealers. He vigorously opposed Roosevelt's efforts to "reorganize" the Supreme Court in 1937 to sideline the conservative, hard-line justices. His majority opinion that year upholding the National Labor Relations Act and his ruling upholding a state minimum wage law (National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. [1937]) helped defuse the crisis by suggesting that he and the other moderate on the Court, Justice Owen Roberts, would thereafter side with the liberals.

Hughes retired in 1941, having authored twice as many constitutional opinions as any other member of his Court. Justice Felix Frankfurter, who served under him, remarked that "he took his seat at the center of the Court with a mastery, I suspect, unparalleled in the history of the Court."
John Fox, a writer and documentary film producer, was series producer of the Emmy-winning PBS series HERITAGE: CIVILIZATION AND THE JEWS. Editor-in-chief of the award-winning HERITAGE DVD-ROM, he supervised the creation of its 540-map interactive atlas of world history. He is currently writing a book about the growth of communal intelligence over the centuries.

Charles Evans Hughes James McReynolds Louis Brandeis William Howard Taft George Sutherland Harlan Fiske Stone view all biographies Stephen Field Oliver Wendell Holmes