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Portrait of Alexander George Sutherland.
Portrait of Alexander George Sutherland.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.

Alexander George Sutherland

b. March 25, 1862, Buckinghamshire, England
d. July 18, 1942, Stockbridge, MA

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Alexander George Sutherland came to the United States as an infant when his parents immigrated to live with the Mormon community in Springfield, Utah Territory. He was educated at Brigham Young Academy in Provo from 1878 to 1881 and attended the University of Michigan Law School for one year. He began private practice with his father in Provo and 10 years later moved to Salt Lake City. He was a member of the Utah territorial legislature, and, when Utah became a state in 1896, he was elected state senator, serving until 1900. That year he was then elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for two years. In 1905 the Utah legislature appointed him U.S. Senator, a position he held until 1917. Sutherland left the Mormon Church and became a Presbyterian, an apostasy that contributed to his being defeated in the 1916 Senate election. He was president of the American Bar Association from 1916 through 1917. He became active in national Republican circles and was an advisor to President Warren Harding, who nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1922.

Sutherland was scholarly by disposition and, according to his mood, could be withdrawn or outgoing, hostile or friendly. He called himself a "conservative," by which he meant that he mistrusted majority rule in government, opposed legislation aimed at achieving social ends, and believed that the role of appellate courts was to defend private rights against government encroachment.

On the Court, Sutherland became one of the majority who, in the 1920s, distinguished themselves by overturning progressive federal legislation. By the 1930s the conservative stance of these justices clashed famously with President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, which attempted to revitalize the economy and create a social safety net. Sutherland was part of a bloc of four justices (also including James Clark McReynolds, Pierce Butler, and Willis Van Devanter) to whom New Dealers referred disparagingly as the "Four Horsemen" -- a reference to the New Testament Book of Revelations, whose four horsemen were Death, Famine, Pestilence, and War.

When these justices, led by Sutherland, blocked New Deal legislation, it aroused intense political and popular debate. Roosevelt reacted by trying to add one new member to the Court for every sitting justice who was over 70. If his plan to pack the Court had succeeded, Roosevelt would have effectively nullified the votes of the Four Horsemen. The proposal ultimately died in Congress, but the Court, in any case, changed its course in 1937 and began voting to uphold New Deal regulations. (Justice Owen Roberts, who had previously voted with the Four Horsemen, switched his vote on West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, and the Four Horsemen thereafter lost its majority. Although the decision in West Coast Hotel was released after Roosevelt’s announcement of his Court packing plan, leading many to think that political pressure caused his shift, Roberts actually cast his vote in the case prior to Roosevelt’s speech.) With the balance of power shifting away from him, Sutherland retired from the Court in 1938.

While the three other Horsemen have been judged failures by most legal scholars and Sutherland holds the distinction of having more opinions overruled than any other justice in the history of the Court, his attempts to articulate a coherent judicial philosophy were so eloquent that he has retained the respect of later generations.

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