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Van Devanter, Willis

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Significance: Although he wrote few opinions, Van Devanter was a key figure in the Court's conservative majorities in the 1920's and 1930's because of his mastery of procedural and jurisdictional questions.


Van Devanter was born into a legal family, and attended Indiana Asbury University (later DePauw) and received his law degree from the Cincinnati Law School in 1881. Because his brother-in-law had been appointed chief justice of the territorial court in Wyoming, Van Devanter moved west in July, 1884. During the next thirteen years, he practiced law and became a force in Republican politics. He was the city attorney of Cheyenne in 1887, was elected to the territorial legislature in 1888, and served as chief justice of Wyoming from 1889 to 1890. His close friendship with Senator Francis E. Warren aided his political rise. Van Devanter defended the cattlemen in the notorious Johnson County “war” over cattle rustling in 1892. In 1897 Van Devanter became assistant attorney general in the Department of the Interior, where he dealt with Indian and land cases. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him to the circuit court of appeals for the eighth circuit in 1903. President William H. Taft, at the urging of Senator Warren, nominated Van Devanter to the Supreme Court in late 1910. He was sworn in on January 3, 1911. On the Court, Van Devanter experienced difficulty in writing opinions quickly, and talk of his writer's block was common in Washington legal circles. Nonetheless, he was an important force behind the scenes because of his knowledge of procedure and his ability to propose jurisdictional answers to complex issues. He played a large role in drafting the Judiciary Act of 1925. He was conservative in his opinions about economic regulation and reflected the Republican doctrines of the late nineteenth century. Among Van Devanter's notable opinions were the National Prohibition Cases (1920), which said that the Eighteenth Amendment was constitutional, and the case of McGrain v. Daugherty (1927), which sustained the power of Congress to conduct investigations. On the Court, he was held in high regard by his colleagues, and Chief Justice Taft regarded him as the most valuable member of the Court during his tenure. By the 1930's Van Devanter had become one of the four conservative justices who consistently voted against the New Deal. That situation led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to propose his Court-packing plan in 1937, which would have expanded the Court's membership and filled it with justices favorable to New Deal measures. Van Devanter had been planning to retire for several years, but he timed his announcement to have the most damaging effect on Roosevelt's efforts. His retirement on May 18, 1937, undercut one of the major arguments of the plan that justices were staying too long in their positions. With characteristic skill, Van Devanter helped achieve a final political victory when Roosevelt's plan failed.



Further Reading

  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Bickel, Alexander M., and Benno Schmidt. The Judiciary and Responsible Government, 1910-1921. New York: Macmillan, 1984.
  • Friedman, Leon, and Fred Israel, eds. The Justices of the Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
  • Gould, Lewis L. Wyoming: From Territory to Statehood. Worland, Wyo.: High Plains, 1989.
  • Parrish, Michael E. The Hughes Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2002.
  • Renstrom, Peter G. The Taft Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Shoemaker, Rebecca S. The White Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.