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Stewart, Potter

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Significance: A member of the Supreme Court under both Earl Warren and Warren E. Burger, Stewart served as an independent voice on the Court for twenty-two years, making contributions in the areas of criminal justice reform, search and seizure laws, capital punishment, gender discrimination, and civil rights.


Stewart was born in Jackson, Michigan, the son of a wealthy Cincinnati lawyer, James Garfield Stewart, and his wife, Harriet Potter Stewart. Stewart's father served as the mayor of Cincinnati for nine years and later was appointed to the Ohio supreme court. His mother worked diligently to reform city government and served as the president of the League of Women Voters. Everyone in the family, including Stewart himself, assumed that he would become a lawyer as an adult. After receiving his high school education at a private school in Connecticut, Stewart enrolled at Yale, graduating in 1937. He also attended Yale Law School, serving as the editor of the law journal. After graduation from law school, Stewart began working for a corporate law firm in New York City. His career was interrupted, however, by the beginning of World War II (1941-1945). As a naval officer, Stewart served on ships in the Atlantic and Mediterranean during the war. After the war, Stewart practiced law briefly in New York before returning to Cincinnati. In addition to working as a trial lawyer, he entered politics and was elected to the city council. In 1954 Stewart was appointed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, making Stewart the youngest judge serving in a federal court at that time. In October, 1958, Eisenhower appointed Stewart to the Supreme Court while the Senate was on recess. Consequently, Stewart began working on cases before his confirmation hearings. On May 5, 1959, the Senate confirmed his appointment. The Court was evenly divided between liberals and conservatives at that time, and Stewart often found himself being described as the swing vote. Court watchers found it difficult to predict Stewart's vote on any given issue. Although he was a Republican, Stewart could not be identified with any political ideology. Rather, Stewart said, he consistently tried to decide cases based solely on their Constitutional merits and legal reasoning. He told biographers that he wanted to be remembered as a “good lawyer who did his best.”


Civil and Other Rights

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, in part, that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause,…particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized.” Interpretations of the amendment vary concerning what constitutes a “place” and what “things” may be seized. In his opinion for Katz v. United States (1967), Stewart wrote that the Fourth Amendment “protects people, not places.” Consequently, something as abstract as a conversation can be considered a “thing” that cannot be seized without a warrant, and a phone booth can be considered a “place.” In this and several other cases, Stewart applied his careful legal mind to further strengthening and defining this amendment. Although Stewart was a strong proponent of states’ rights, he nonetheless made important decisions regarding civil rights. In writing the majority opinion for Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. (1968), Stewart stated that the 1866 Civil Rights Act made it illegal to refuse to sell or rent property on the basis of the buyer's or renter's race. In an earlier case, Stewart voted to prohibit Birmingham, Alabama, police from using antiloitering laws to prevent civil rights demonstrations. On the other hand, Stewart's states’ rights beliefs often placed him in opposition to challenges to voting practices designed to limit the rights of African American voters to register to vote. He believed that a state's electoral system belonged to the state, although he supported the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Stewart consistently voted in favor of strengthening and supporting the right to free speech. He is best known for his stand on obscenity laws. In the Burger Court, he was often the dissenting voice, refusing to join with the majority on its strengthening of obscenity laws. Further, in a very famous 1971 case, New York Times Co. v. United States, Stewart ruled against the United States in its case against The New York Times for its publication of the Pentagon Papers. These papers were government documents, leaked to the press by an anti-Vietnam War activist. In addition, Stewart wrote several decisions on First Amendment rights of public employees, including teachers and low-level government workers.



Further Reading

  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Barnes, Catherine. Men of the Supreme Court: Profiles of the Justices. New York: Facts on File, 1978.
  • Bendiner, Robert. “The Law and Potter Stewart: An Interview with Justice Potter Stewart.” American Heritage, December, 1983, 98-104.
  • Cushman, Clare, ed. The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789-1993. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1993.
  • Friedman, Leon. “Potter Stewart.” In The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789-1978: Their Lives and Major Opinions, edited by Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel. Vol. 5. New York: Chelsea House, 1978.
  • Schwartz, Bernard. A History of the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Tushnet, Mark. A Court Divided: The Rehnquist Court and the Future of Constitutional Law. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. The Warren Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2001.
  • Urofsky, Melvin I., ed. The Supreme Court Justices. New York: Garland, 1994.
  • Yarbrough, Tinsley E. The Burger Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2000.