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Butler, Pierce

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Significance: During seventeen years on the Supreme Court, Butler supported Court decisions that limited the authority of the states and the federal government to regulate private businesses. In the 1930's he was one of the Court's Four Horsemen, who consistently held New Deal legislation regulating economic affairs to be unconstitutional.


The son of Irish immigrants, Butler was raised on a farm in Dakota County, Minnesota. In 1887 he received a bachelor's degree from Carleton College. Admitted to the Minnesota Bar in 1888, Butler served from 1890 to 1896 as a prosecuting attorney for Ramsey County, Minnesota. He then entered private practice representing corporate clients and excelled as a courtroom attorney. In 1908 he was elected president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. He specialized in defending railroads in valuation cases that determined railroad rates and gained a national reputation when he defended the railroads before the Supreme Court in the Minnesota Rate Cases (1913). On November 22, 1922, President Warren G. Harding named Butler to fill the vacancy created by Justice William R. Day's resignation. On December 21, 1922, Butler was confirmed by a Senate vote of sixty-one to eight. He took the oath on January 2, 1923, and served on the Court until his death on November 16, 1939. During his Court tenure, Butler consistently supported laissez-faire legal doctrines that upheld the right of private businesses to operate without regulation by state and federal law. He voted against government regulation in every case involving freedom of contract that was decided by a divided Court. In rate and valuation cases involving railroads and utilities, Butler voted for the corporate position in all eighteen cases decided by a divided Court between 1924 and 1939. In 1935 and 1936 Butler and Justices George Sutherland, Willis Van Devanter, and James C. McReynolds were known as the Four Horsemen of the Court because they consistently voted together in Court decisions that held President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal legislation regulating economic affairs to be unconstitutional. The most significant Court opinion written by Butler was Morehead v. New York ex rel. Tipaldo (1936). His majority opinion in a 5-4 decision held that New York's law providing a minimum wage for women workers and minors was unconstitutional because it violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, imposing an unconstitutional state interference with the freedom of contract between an employee and an employer. This decision, coming soon after Court decisions that held federal economic legislation unconstitutional, meant that both federal and state governments had minimal constitutional authority to regulate economic affairs. These Court decisions led to President Roosevelt's attack on the Court after his landslide reelection in 1936. The outcome was the judicial revolution of 1937, when moderate justices joined economic liberals on the Court to overturn laissez-faire precedents in Court decisions. When Justice Butler died in 1939, Roosevelt chose an economic liberal, Frank Murphy, as his successor.



Further Reading

  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Brown, Francis Joseph. The Social and Economic Philosophy of Pierce Butler. Washington: Catholic University Press, 1945.
  • Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
  • Parrish, Michael E. The Hughes Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2002.
  • Renstrom, Peter G. The Taft Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.