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Pitney, Mahlon

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Significance: During his tenure on the Supreme Court, Pitney was noted for his meticulously crafted and staunchly conservative opinions, particularly those in the area of labor organization.


Pitney was the son of a prominent attorney who eventually became vice chancellor of New Jersey. Pitney entered Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey) in 1875. He thus was a classmate of Woodrow Wilson, and although they joined opposing political parties, the two maintained a cordial relationship. Upon his graduation in 1879, Pitney studied law in Morristown with his father, was admitted to the bar, and opened his own practice in nearby Dover, a growing industrial city. When his father became vice chancellor, Pitney took over the Morristown practice and prospered both professionally and politically. In 1894 Pitney became the Republican nominee for Congress. He won a close election but was reelected in 1896 more substantially partly because his conservative stand against the free coinage of silver attracted “gold Democrats” as well as Republicans. A year before the end of his second term, however, Pitney resigned from Congress to enter the state senate. Soon he was the senate president. He rose in New Jersey Republican circles because of his ability, his steadfast conservatism, and his willingness to cooperate with the state's Republican “boss,” William Sewall. He probably had his eye on the governorship. However, in 1901, his life suddenly changed course. When Governor Foster Voorhees nominated him to the New Jersey supreme court, Pitney turned his back on politics and devoted the rest of his career to the judiciary. From February, 1901, until January, 1908, Pitney was a justice of the New Jersey supreme court, but then he was offered the chancellorship of New Jersey. He held that position at the apex of the state's appellate system until his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. His nomination came from William H. Taft apparently on the strength of a single dinner meeting between the two, one week before Taft announced his choice. Pitney's antilabor views were well known, and they sparked a short Senate debate during which some progressive Republicans deserted Taft and voted against the nominee. The party loyalists were able to carry the nomination, however, by a vote of fifty to twenty-six. During his tenure of nearly eleven years, Pitney authored 244 majority opinions for the Court and only 19 dissents. Consistent with his earlier views, Pitney wrote a number of strongly antiunion opinions, the most important of which were Coppage v. Kansas (1915), upholding the right of employers to fire employees who refused to resign from their unions, and Hitchman Coal and Coke Co. v. Mitchell (1917), ruling that employers could get an injunction to prevent unionization if the workers had previously agreed not to organize. These and other decisions provoked spirited dissents from the shifting group of moderates and liberals on the Court Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis D. Brandeis, Charles Evans Hughes, John H. Clarke, and William R. Day. In August, 1922, a serious stroke left Pitney unable to continue, and he resigned his position effective December 31. Two years later, he died at his home in Washington, D.C.