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Hughes, Charles Evans

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Significance: Having resigned as an associate justice in 1916 to run for the presidency of the United States, Hughes returned to the Supreme Court in 1930 as chief justice. In that capacity, he led the Court through the critical days of the Great Depression and the New Deal.


Hughes attended Madison University (later Colgate) and was graduated from Brown University in 1881, the youngest member of his graduating class. Lacking funds to attend law school, he taught school for a year. In 1882 he entered Columbia University Law School, graduating with honors in 1884. He entered the private practice of law, taking time out from 1891 to 1893 to teach at Cornell University's Law School. He gained considerable recognition for his investigations of gas lighting and insurance companies for the New York State legislature.


Launching a Political Career

Hughes's success in his investigatory activities in New York resulted in his being elected Republican governor of New York in 1906. Running on a reform platform, he soundly defeated his opponent, William Randolph Hearst. He won a second term in 1908. As governor, he imposed controls on race-horse gambling, set up public service commissions, and initiated many reforms in state government. When Hughes's second term as governor ended, President William H. Taft nominated him as an associate justice on the Supreme Court. Hughes served in this position until 1916 when he received the Republican nomination for the presidency. He lost the election to the incumbent, Woodrow Wilson, by twenty-three electoral votes. Resuming his law practice, Hughes often argued cases before the Court. After the United States entered World War I (1917-1918), he served as chair of the draft appeals board of New York City. In 1921 President Warren G. Harding appointed Hughes secretary of state, placing him in the delicate position of negotiating his country's separate peace with Germany after the U.S. Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty. He organized the Washington Disarmament Conference (1921) and worked to foster productive relations with foreign countries, excluding only the Soviet Union. Although he supported the League of Nations, he failed to promote it because of Harding's resolute opposition to the League. He worked diligently to gain Harding's support for the World Court. Returning in 1925 to his law practice, which grew increasingly lucrative as it became international in scope, Hughes again entered public service when he agreed to serve as judge of the Permanent Court of International Justice from 1928 to 1930. His frequently returning to the practice of law helped Hughes develop an encyclopedic knowledge of law and of complex legal questions.


Appointment as Chief Justice

On February 3, 1930, the day William H. Taft resigned as chief justice of the United States, President Herbert Hoover nominated Hughes to take his place. The enthusiasm that had marked Hughes's nomination as an associate justice in 1910 was notably absent when his nomination for chief justice was announced two decades later. The debate over his confirmation focused largely on Hughes's personal wealth and on his close association with powerful business leaders. Many senators feared that Hughes could not distance himself sufficiently from his associates to make fair decisions in cases that involved labor disputes and ordinary citizens. The Senate voted fifty-two to twenty-six for Hughes's confirmation. During Hughes's term as an associate justice, the Court made few far-reaching decisions, but such was not the case during his eleven years as chief justice. Social change was rampant. The burgeoning New Deal presented challenges unlike any the court had previously faced. Conservatives feared the nation was moving toward socialism. Under Hughes's leadership, the Court declared unconstitutional the establishment of New Deal agencies such as the National Recovery Administration and the Agricultural Adjustment Board. Franklin D. Roosevelt, his New Deal hobbled by the Court's conservatism, proposed increasing the number of justices by six if the justices over age seventy did not retire. He hoped that such an increase might enable him to appoint more liberal justices, thereby achieving a balance on the Court. Congress rejected this proposal, but the fact it was suggested indicated the strains that existed between the executive and judiciary.


Hughes's Contributions

During his six years as associate justice, Hughes served well on a Court focused on matters involving the United States’ transformation from an agrarian to an industrial society. Hughes wrote 151 opinions as associate justice and dissented in only 32 instances. Other justices dissented from 12 of his decisions. During his term as chief justice, Hughes assumed a heavier workload than was typical of people in his position, often preferring to write opinions himself rather than to delegate. As chief justice, he wrote 283 majority opinions and 23 dissents. He surprised some skeptics by upholding a great deal of legislation favorable to labor and voting against legislation designed to curtail labor's organizing activities.



Further Reading

  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Danelski, David, and Joseph S. Tulchin, eds. The Autobiographical Notes of Charles Evans Hughes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.
  • 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.
  • Glad, Betty. Charles Evans Hughes and the Illusions of Innocence: A Study in American Diplomacy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966.
  • Hendel, Samuel. Charles Evans Hughes and the Supreme Court. New York: King's Crown Press of Columbia University, 1951.
  • Parrish, Michael E. The Hughes Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2002.
  • Perkins, Dexter. Charles Evans Hughes and American Democratic Statesmanship. Boston: Little, Brown, 1956.
  • Pusey, Merlo. Charles Evans Hughes. New York: Macmillan, 1951.
  • Shoemaker, Rebecca S. The White Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.