5 minute read

Harlan Fiske Stone

Further Readings

Harlan Fiske Stone served as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1925 to 1941 and as chief justice from 1941 to 1946. A believer in judicial restraint, he was also a defender of CIVIL RIGHTS and civil liberties. Stone was often a lone dissenter in the 1920s and 1930s when conservatives, who dominated the Court, struck down state and federal legislation that sought to regulate business and working conditions.

Stone was born on October 11, 1872, in Chesterfield, New Hampshire. He graduated

Harlan Fiske Stone.

from Amherst College in 1894 and Columbia Law School in 1898. Admitted to the New York bar the year of his graduation, Stone became a member of a prominent New York City law firm. He was also a part-time instructor at Columbia Law School from 1899 to 1902. In 1902 Stone left his law firm to become a professor of law at Columbia. From 1910 to 1923 he was dean of the law school. He resigned in 1924 to join Sullivan and Cromwell, the most prestigious law firm in New York City.

In 1924 President CALVIN COOLIDGE appointed Stone attorney general. The JUSTICE DEPARTMENT had been tarnished by the TEAPOT DOME SCANDAL during the administration of

Coolidge's predecessor, President WARREN G. HARDING. In addition, the Bureau of Investigation (BI), the forerunner of the FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION (FBI), had become a home to political cronyism and corruption. Stone appointed J. EDGAR HOOVER to head the BI and institute wide-ranging reforms. Stone's administration of the Department of Justice drew praise from Congress and President Coolidge.

Coolidge nominated Stone to the Supreme Court in 1925. Some senators were fearful that Stone's Wall Street connections would cause him to favor business interests. Responding to these concerns, Stone proposed that he appear before the SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE to answer questions. The committee accepted, thereby creating the now-traditional confirmation process used for federal court appointments. Stone was easily confirmed.

In the 1920s the Court was dominated by conservative justices who struck down many state and federal laws that sought to regulate labor, business, commerce, and working conditions. Stone dissented from these decisions, arguing that the Court should exercise judicial restraint and allow Congress and state legislatures to craft laws that address pressing social and economic problems.

With the election of President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT in 1932, the Supreme Court's hostility to government regulation drew even greater attention as it declared unconstitutional a host of NEW DEAL economic reforms. Stone wrote a biting dissent in the case of United States v. Butler, 297 U.S. 1, 56 S. Ct. 312, 80 L. Ed. 477 (1936), which involved a processing tax paid by farmers to fund subsidies paid to eligible farmers under Roosevelt's Agricultural Adjustment Act. The act was declared unconstitutional because all farmers were taxed but only specific farmers received benefits. Stone argued that the subsidies were valid.

Although Stone was a Republican and President Roosevelt a Democrat, Roosevelt appointed Stone chief justice in 1941. Stone's tenure as chief justice was marked by bitter fighting among the justices, which has been blamed partly on Stone's inability to negotiate and build a consensus.

Stone's commitment to civil liberties was demonstrated in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586, 60 S. Ct. 1010, 84 L. Ed. 1375 (1940). He was the lone dissenter when the Court upheld a state law that required Jehovah's Witnesses to salute the flag, even though this conflicted with their religious beliefs. Stone argued that the law infringed on the FIRST AMENDMENT right to the free exercise of religion. Three years later his view was endorsed by the Court in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 63 S. Ct. 1178, 87 L. Ed. 1628 (1943), when it overruled Gobitis.

In the area of civil rights, Stone helped move the Court from tacit acceptance of the racially discriminatory status quo in the southern states to a more aggressive stance. In United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 61 S. Ct. 1031, 85 L. Ed. 1368 (1941), the Court ruled that the federal government could regulate party primaries to prevent election FRAUD that resulted in the failure to count African American votes. Three years later the Court struck down the WHITE PRIMARY, which excluded African Americans from southern Democratic parties and Democratic primary elections (Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649, 64 S. Ct. 757, 88 L. Ed. 987 [1944]). Stone played a pivotal role in deciding these cases.

Stone contributed to modern constitutional analysis in a famous footnote to his opinion in United States v. Carolene Products Company, 304 U.S. 144, 58 S. Ct. 778, 82 L. Ed. 1234 (1938). Known as FOOTNOTE FOUR, it stated that "prejudice against discrete and insular minorities may be a special condition, which tends seriously to curtail the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities and which may call for a more searching judicial scrutiny." This footnote became the basis for the "strict scrutiny" test, which the Court applies to assess the constitutionality of legislation concerning the rights of racial minorities, religious sects, ALIENS, prisoners, and other "discrete and insular minorities." Under STRICT SCRUTINY the government must demonstrate more than just a rational basis for legislation. It must show a compelling state interest and prove that the legislation is narrowly tailored to meet that interest.


Stone's tenure, however, was not unblemished. In KOREMATSU V. UNITED STATES, 323 U.S. 214, 65 S. Ct. 193, 89 L. Ed. 194 (1944), he upheld the forced relocation of Japanese Americans to detention camps during WORLD WAR II. The decision was based on the wartime powers of the president to take emergency actions for national security reasons.

Stone died on April 22, 1946, in Washington, D.C.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Special power to Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation