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Portrait of Harlan Fiske Stone
Portrait of Harlan Fiske Stone.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.

Harlan Fiske Stone

b. October 11, 1872, Chesterfield, NH
d. April 22, 1946, Washington, D.C.

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Twelfth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Harlan Fiske Stone was raised on a farm in a rural region of western Massachusetts where poverty was common. He attended Amherst High School and then Amherst College, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1894. He went on to Columbia Law School, where his intelligence so impressed his teachers that soon after he graduated in 1898, they offered him a position on the faculty. He passed the bar in 1899 and thereafter divided his time between private practice and teaching at Columbia Law School, where he became dean (1910-1923). In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge chose Stone as his Attorney General to restore prestige to the Justice Department after the scandals of the previous administration. Stone reformed the department and appointed J. Edgar Hoover to head the FBI. The following year, Coolidge named him Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

When some senators expressed fear that Stone might be too protective of business interests because of his contacts on Wall Street, Stone volunteered to answer questions before the Senate Judiciary Committee. His appearance before the committee, unprecedented at the time, set the model for future confirmation hearings for federal court appointments. He was confirmed by the Senate by a 71-6 vote.

Stone tried to balance a number of conflicting impulses within himself. Coming from a childhood of limited circumstances, he was drawn toward the comforts of affluence, including fine wines and the arts, but he was fiercely determined not to let pleasure turn to extravagance. He could be humble, but he was confident of his abilities and could defend his opinions with tenacity. He was by turns proud or humble, open-minded or stubborn. On the Court he found himself in sympathy with its "liberal" wing, and he often joined with Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis in judgments upholding legislation that regulated industry or attempted to improve working conditions.

As the Court repeatedly struck down New Deal legislation in the 1930s, Stone, along with Brandeis and Holmes, was commonly in the minority. When the composition of the Court shifted in 1937, however, their dissents became the foundation for majority opinions. In a footnote to the U.S. v. Carolene Products Co. (1938) decision, Stone articulated an important principle of future practice: the Court should treat economic legislation with great lenience so long as it had a rational basis, but laws that affected 'discrete" and "insular" minorities should be subject to "strict scrutiny." Despite this, he wrote the opinion defending the right of the government to deprive Japanese Americans of civil rights during World War II (Hirabayashi v. United States [1943]).

Stone, a Republican, was appointed Chief Justice in 1941 by President Franklin Roosevelt. This was one of only two times a justice was appointed by a president of the opposing party. Despite his considerable charm, Stone was unable to manage the clash of personalities on his Court, and his tenure was not notable for its accomplishments.

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