Stanley Matthews served as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1881 to 1889. A longtime friend and adviser to President RUTHERFORD B. HAYES, Matthews proved an effective and hardworking member of the Court during his brief tenure. His 1859 prosecution of a reporter for aiding the escape of two fugitive slaves proved politically embarrassing in later years. On the other hand, his opinion in YICK WO V. HOPKINS, 118 U.S. 356, 6 S. Ct. 1064, 30 L. Ed. 220 (1886), established an enduring principle of EQUAL PROTECTION analysis under the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT.
Matthews was born July 21, 1824, in Cincinnati. He preferred his middle name and dropped his first name, Thomas, in his adult life. He graduated from Kenyon College in 1840 and then studied law in Cincinnati. He was admitted to the Tennessee bar in 1842 and began a law practice in Columbia, Tennessee. Matthews also devoted himself to journalism, editing the Tennessee Democrat newspaper. He returned to Ohio in 1845 to become editor of the Cincinnati Morning Herald.
Soon Matthews was drawn into politics and public service. He became clerk of the Ohio House of Representatives in 1848, then left in 1851 to sit as judge on the court of COMMON PLEAS in Hamilton County, Ohio. He was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1855, where he served until 1857.
Matthews was appointed U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio in 1858. In 1859 he prosecuted W. B. Connelly, a local reporter, under the federal FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT, for assisting two runaway slaves. Though Matthews was an abolitionist, he duly enforced the law. Critics charged him with forsaking his conscience in the hope of furthering his legal and political careers. Matthews never escaped the taint of these accusations.
When the Civil War broke out, Matthews enlisted in the Twenty-third Ohio Infantry as a lieutenant colonel, under the command of Hayes, a college classmate and friend. He left the army in 1863, following his election as a judge of the Cincinnati Superior Court. He held that post until 1865, when he resumed his private law practice.
Matthews aided his friend Hayes in the 1876 presidential election, against SAMUEL J. TILDEN, the Democratic governor of New York. An electoral commission was formed by Congress in early 1877 to resolve disputes over the electoral votes in several states. Matthews represented Hayes and the REPUBLICAN PARTY, successfully arguing that Hayes should be awarded all the disputed votes and thus become president.
Matthews was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1877. In 1880 Hayes nominated him to the Supreme Court. The Senate rejected his nomination, in part because of his 1859 prosecution of Connelly under the fugitive slave law and also because he had represented railroads and corporations in his law practice. Some senators argued that this would affect Matthews's judgment in cases on these issues.
In 1881 President JAMES GARFIELD nominated Matthews to the Court. This time he was confirmed by one vote.
During his nearly eight years on the Court, Matthews authored 232 opinions and five dissents. In HURTADO V. CALIFORNIA, 110 U.S. 516, 4 S. Ct. 111, 28 L. Ed. 232 (1884), Matthews rejected the idea that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments' DUE PROCESS provisions required states to prosecute citizens solely through the GRAND JURY indictment process. Matthews wrote that as long as the defendant had notice and an opportunity to prepare a defense to the charges, due process was provided.
Matthews is most famous for his opinion in Yick Wo. In this opinion Matthews invalidated a San Francisco ordinance requiring owners of
laundries housed in wooden buildings to obtain permission from the city government to continue the operation of their business. Although the language of the ordinance was neutral, it was administered in such a way that Chinese laundry owners were denied licenses and nearly all non-Chinese applicants were granted licenses. Matthews looked past the neutral language to strike down the ordinance as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, concluding that unequal application of the ordinance furthered "unjust and illegal discrimination." Matthews's opinion became the
foundation for modern civil rights cases involving DISPARATE IMPACT, in which discrimination is established by statistical inequality rather than through proof of intentional discrimination.
Matthews died March 22, 1889, in Washington, D.C.