As an associate justice from 1958 to 1981, Potter Stewart charted a middle course during a vigorous era on the U.S. Supreme Court. Before his appointment to the Court by President DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER, Stewart practiced law, served in local government in his native Cincinnati, Ohio, and sat on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals from 1954 to 1958. He joined the Supreme Court during a period when the Court was changing the social and political landscape by extending CIVIL RIGHTS and liberties under Chief Justice EARL WARREN, yet Stewart remained a moderate during his twenty-three-year tenure. Pragmatism, unpredictability, and plainspoken opinions were his hallmarks. His penchant for witty phrases made him highly quotable, but his inconsistent voting record left only an ambiguous mark on U.S. law. At age forty-three, he was among the youngest appointees to the Court and, at age sixty-six, also one of the youngest justices to retire from it.
Born in Jackson, Michigan, on January 23, 1915, Stewart came from old money and a family steeped in law and politics. Educated at University School, Hotchkiss, as well as at Yale,
Cambridge, and Yale Law School, he earned his law degree from Yale in 1941. A stint on Wall Street followed. He served in the U.S. Navy during WORLD WAR II and returned to Ohio after the war. After working for a large law firm in his home state, Stewart briefly followed his father's footsteps into politics. James Garfield. Stewart had been mayor of Cincinnati and a justice of the Ohio Supreme Court. Potter Stewart served on the city council and as vice mayor, but he soon abandoned political life to build his own legal practice.
In 1954 President Eisenhower appointed Stewart to the federal bench. Stewart's high profile in the Ohio bar made him an attractive candidate for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, where he served for the next four years. He was widely respected for his competence and efficiency as an appellate judge, and Eisenhower returned to him in 1958 when a seat opened on the Supreme Court. Although southern senators who disliked his embrace of SCHOOL DESEGREGATION offered scattered opposition to his appointment, the nomination easily succeeded.
On the Supreme Court, Stewart was a moderate justice. He was criticized for indecision, chiefly because he was often the unpredictable swing vote in cases that pitted the Warren Court's activist and judicial restraint blocs against each other. Stewart, however, followed his instincts on the Court without obvious resort to ideology or doctrine. To the question of whether he was liberal or conservative, he replied, "I am a lawyer," explaining that the labels had little value for him in the political sphere and even less in law. Stewart's approach in his opinions is notable for its plain-edged pragmatism. He blasted a state's anti-contraception laws as "uncommonly silly" in GRISWOLD V. CONNECTICUT (381 U.S. 479, 85 S. Ct. 1678, 14 L. Ed. 2d ), and in another case, he wrote of OBSCENITY, stating, "I know it when I see it" (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 84 S. Ct. 1676, 12 L. Ed. 2d 793 ).
In the arena of civil rights and liberties, Stewart's moderate outlook clearly revealed itself. He sided with claimants in 52 percent of these cases. Among his most notable decisions in favor of civil liberties was Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., 392 U.S. 409, 88 S. Ct. 2186, 20 L. Ed. 2d 1189 (1968), in which the WARREN COURT upheld measures that protected African Americans against discrimination in housing. Stewart's pragmatism did not allow for subjectivity, however. Although he regarded Connecticut's ban on the use of contraceptives as silly, he found the law constitutional and dissented from the majority in Griswold v. Connecticut. He maintained his moderate outlook in his later years on the Court. He agreed with the majority's expansion of a right to privacy in the landmark ABORTION case, ROE V. WADE, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973), but he also attacked the Court's tendency to invalidate any state law it found unwise.
Stewart's legacy on the Court defies easy categorization. At best he is remembered for his pragmatism and at worst for leaving a less than cohesive body of opinions. He retired from the Court in 1981 and died in Hanover, New Hampshire, on December 7, 1985.
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