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Willis Van Devanter

As an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1910 to 1937, Willis Van Devanter was considered the leading conservative justice of the era. Van Devanter's background in education, politics, and the law brought him to the bench, first as chief justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court and then as a U.S. circuit judge. In his twenty-six years on the U.S. Supreme Court, he consistently opposed the expansion of government power. His opposition was fiercest during the administration of President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, when he joined three other conservative justices of the Supreme Court in fighting Roosevelt's legislative program, the NEW DEAL. Their like-minded opinions, which earned them the nickname the "Four Horsemen," led to a sharp confrontation with the president.

Born on April 17, 1859, in Marion, Indiana, Van Devanter was the first of eight children born to Violetta Spencer and Isaac Van Devanter, a lawyer and abolitionist. He excelled in academics, graduating in 1878 from Indiana Asbury University (now DePauw University) with a near perfect record in history, math, Greek, and Latin. In 1881 he earned a bachelor of laws degree from the Cincinnati Law School and established a law practice in Indiana. He soon moved to Wyoming where he represented railroads, helped to amend the state's statutes in 1886, and served as city attorney for two years. In 1888 he was a representative at the territorial legislature and chaired the Judiciary Committee. Van Devanter also found time for hunting grizzly bears with the legendary Buffalo Bill (William F. Cody).

For the next two decades, Van Devanter's energies were divided among the judiciary, education, and REPUBLICAN PARTY politics. He presided as chief justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court from 1889 to 1890. From 1896 to 1900, he was an assistant U.S. attorney general to the INTERIOR DEPARTMENT, concurrently serving as a delegate to the Republican National Committee. He also taught law at Columbian College, now GEORGE WASHINGTON University. In 1903 President THEODORE ROOSEVELT appointed him to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, and in 1910 President WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT nominated him to the Supreme Court.


On the Court, Van Devanter wrote few noteworthy opinions. His contributions came mainly in obscure legal areas that he had mastered while on the circuit court: land claims, WATER RIGHTS, and jurisdictional issues. Rather than writing opinions, Van Devanter preferred to assert his influence in discussions among the justices. He often voiced his belief that government

Willis Van Devanter.

power should be limited. He took an especially narrow view of the powers that could be asserted under the U.S. Constitution's Commerce, Tax, and Due Process Clauses. From 1918 to 1923, he joined majority opinions that found federal CHILD LABOR LAWS and state MINIMUM WAGE legislation unconstitutional.

Ironically, Van Devanter's most significant opinion marked a rare departure from his ideology. In MCGRAIN V. DAUGHERTY, 273 U.S. 135, 47 S. Ct. 319, 71 L. Ed. 580 (1927), he asserted that Congress had broad powers to subpoena and conduct investigations. The opinion's impact was felt dramatically two decades later during congressional investigations of labor corruption and COMMUNISM.

In the 1930s, Van Devanter's desire to restrain government kept him on the Court. He had apparently decided to retire in 1932 but changed his mind because of what he regarded as the excesses of President Franklin Roosevelt. The president had embarked on the ambitious New Deal, a broad legislative response to the economic hardships of the Great Depression.

Sharing Van Devanter's opposition to these programs were three other conservative justices: JAMES C. MCREYNOLDS, GEORGE SUTHERLAND, and PIERCE BUTLER. Critics dubbed them the "Four Horsemen," after the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. In a string of decisions, they voted as a bloc to strike down key New Deal laws. Among these decisions was SCHECHTER POULTRY CORP. V. UNITED STATES, 295 U.S. 495, 55 S. Ct. 837, 79 L. Ed. 1570 (1935), which voided a key part of Roosevelt's plan for economic recovery and provoked the president into seeking a means to ensure that his legislation survived. Two years later, Roosevelt responded with an extraordinary attempt to expand the number of justices on the Court—his so-called court-packing plan. In the face of this challenge, the Court backed down and began upholding New Deal legislation.

Van Devanter resigned at the end of 1936. Although branded a reactionary during his tenure, in retirement he received accolades from his fellow justices, conservative and liberal alike. He died on February 8, 1941, in Washington, D.C.


Johnson, Wallace H. 2001. "Willis Van Devanter: An Examination." Wyoming Law Review 1 (winter).

Van Pelt, Lori. 2004. Capital Characters of Old Cheyenne. Glendo, Wyo.: High Plains Press.

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