Significance: An abolitionist who was criticized for his reluctant enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), Matthews narrowly won confirmation to become one of the most enlightened members of the Gilded Age Court.
Born in Cincinnati, Matthews graduated from Kenyon College in 1840 and spent the next two years studying law before gaining admission to the bar in Tennessee. It was not long after that, however, that he returned to Cincinnati to take an active role in the abolitionist movement. Between 1846 and 1849, Matthews served as assistant editor with the antislavery publication, Cincinnati Herald. He remained active in the practice of law and was appointed common pleas court judge in 1851. Four years later, he won election to the Ohio state senate. Appointed U.S. attorney for southern Ohio in 1858, Matthews was obligated to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act (1850). He would later be accused of selling out his principles for political gain. Matthews enlisted in the Union army in 1861 and became a lieutenant colonel under former Kenyon classmate, Rutherford B. Hayes. He resigned his commission in 1863 to accept a seat on the superior court of Cincinnati. He left the bench one year later and returned to private practice. Republican Matthews was defeated in a run for Congress in 1876. Early in 1877, however, Matthews was named Republican counsel before the Electoral Commission appointed to determine the legitimate winner of the presidential election between Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden. Successfully arguing on behalf of Hayes, Matthews was soon rewarded when the Ohio legislature elected him U.S. senator. Matthews served in the Senate from 1877 to 1879 and is best remembered for successfully sponsoring a bill calling for the reestablishment of silver currency as legal tender. When outgoing President Hayes nominated Matthews to the Supreme Court on January 26, 1881, the Senate refused to act. Matthews's nomination met with the strong opposition of New York Republican Senator Roscoe Conkling and was further criticized as “very unbecoming” in view of the nominee's role in the electoral dispute. Nevertheless, on March 14, Matthews's name was resubmitted by the new president, James Garfield. After several weeks of debate, the Senate narrowly confirmed Matthews by a vote of twenty-four to twenty-three. As a justice, Matthews's two most notable rulings were Hurtado v. California (1884) and Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886). In Hurtado, Matthews rejected claims that the due process provisions of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments required states to procure grand jury indictments before they could prosecute felonies. Instead, as long as criminal defendants were given fair notice of the charges against them and adequate time in which to prepare a legal defense, Matthews maintained that the Constitution's due process protection requirements were satisfied. Having earlier determined that the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply to acts of private discrimination, in Yick Wo Matthews was subsequently able to guide a unanimous Court into declaring a seemingly race-neutral ordinance unconstitutional for its “evil eye…unequal hand” discrimination against Chinese laundry operators. In 1886 he also joined the majority in denying states the power to regulate railroads operating in interstate commerce. Serving on the bench for seven years and ten months, Matthews authored 232 opinions and 5 dissents before his death at the age of sixty-four.
- Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
- Ely, James W., Jr. The Fuller Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
- Friedman, Leon, and Fred Israel, eds. The Justices of the Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
- Greve, Charles T. “Stanley Matthews.” In Great American Lawyers: A History of the Legal Profession in America, edited by William Draper Lewis. Vol. 7. 1907-1909. Reprint. South Hackensack, N.J.: Rothman Reprints, 1971.
- Magrath, C. Peter. Morrison Waite: The Triumph of Character. New York: Macmillan Press, 1963.
- Stephenson, Donald Grier, Jr. The Waite Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.