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Thayer, James Bradley

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Significance: Thayer's beliefs that judicial review should be used very cautiously influenced a number of Supreme Court justices, including Felix Frankfurter and John M. Harlan II.


Thayer began his career as a successful lawyer in Boston, but it was as a member of the law faculty at Harvard University that he made his greatest contribution to modern American jurisprudence. While at Harvard, he (along with James Barr Ames, John Chipman Gray, and Christopher C. Langdell) created what is known as the “case method” of legal education, where students explore the major principles of law through the close analysis of court cases rather than simply the examination of broad theories and practices. The case method of legal education is now preferred by virtually all major law schools in the United States. An expert on constitutional law, Thayer was also well known for his staunch support of judicial self-restraint. In an 1893 Harvard Law Review article entitled “The Origin and Scope of the American Doctrine of Constitutional Law,” he reconsidered the principle of judicial review, claiming that Supreme Court justices must be cognizant of both their positions as unelected officials and the overall structure of the political system itself before rendering constitutional decisions. Those justices, he argued, must not be guided by their personal predilections but must declare a law unconstitutional only if it clearly violates one or more provisions of the constitutional text. His teachings influenced some of this country's most prominent jurists, including Felix Frankfurter, Learned Hand, and John M. Harlan II.