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GEORGE SHIRAS JR.

George Shiras Jr. was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States who was nominated to the Court by Republican President Benjamin Harrison. At that time, he had 37 years of private legal practice, but had never judged a case. Shiras's only public service before he became a justice was as a federal elector in 1888, almost four years before his nomination in 1892.

Background

  • George Shiras, Jr., was born on January 26,1832, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to George Shiras and Eliza Herron Shiras. Shiras’s father made enough money running a brewery to retire early and devote his energy to farming, especially to the cultivation of peach orchards. The man who would one day occupy a seat on the nation’s highest court thus spent his early years working on the family farm, some 20 miles outside Pittsburgh.

  • Education

    • George Shiras, Jr., left the farm in 1849 to attend Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. In 1851 he transferred to Yale, where he obtained his B.A. in 1853.Although Shiras remained briefly at Yale to study law at law school, he soon chose to pursue a more practical curriculum. He returned to Pittsburgh, where he read law in the office of a former county district court judge, Hopewell Hepburn, and was admitted to the bar of Allegheny County in 1855. For a few years Shiras practiced with his brother Oliver, a recent Yale Law School graduate, in Dubuque, Iowa.

    Career

    • Shiras exchanged the law partnership with his brother in Dubuque for one in Pittsburgh with his former mentor, Hopewell Hepburn, a partnership that lasted until Hepburn’s death in 1862. For the next 30 years, George Shiras practiced law in Pittsburgh. He rode the tide of economic prosperity in Pittsburgh to his own personal prosperity by gradually coming to represent the titans of Pittsburgh’s iron and steel industry, in addition to such prestigious clients as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. By the end of his third decade of practice in Pittsburgh, Shiras’s income was estimated at $75,000 per year, an extraordinary sum for the times.

      Shiras’s prominence in the Pennsylvania legal community made it inevitable that he would be considered as a possible political candidate for some significant post. Nevertheless, the same independent spirit that had propelled Shiras to practice law by himself made him a poor ally for the dominant Pennsylvania Republican machine of his day. Though he was briefly considered as a possible U.S. senator, his refusal to accept this position ultimately alienated him from Pennsylvania Republican leaders such as James Donald Cameron and, later, Matthew Quay. But Shiras’s independent Republicanism proved attractive to President Benjamin Harri-son when Associate Justice Joseph P. Bradley’s death in January 1892 created a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Harrison had strong political reasons for appointing someone from Pennsylvania to the vacant seat; but less than cordial relationships between the president and the state’s two senators, James Cameron and Matthew Quay, also gave Harrison reason to find an independent candidate, not controlled by the Republican machine in Pennsylvania, for the post. Though lacking in both political and judicial ex-perience, George Shiras, Jr., was amply supplied in independence of spirit. President Harrison, as if to emphasize Shiras’s independence even further, defied the tradition of senatorial courtesy by failing to consult with Pennsylvania senators Cameron and Quay about Shiras’s appointment. Thus, when the president sent Shiras’s nomination to the Senate, Cameron and Quay initially launched an indignant campaign of opposition to the nomination. Nevertheless, widespread support for Shiras soon scuttled their efforts, and the Senate confirmed the new justice’s appointment on July 26, 1892.

      Sixty-year-old George Shiras moved with his wife to Washington, D.C., where he undertook a decade long tenure of service on the Supreme Court. In spite of bringing no judicial experience with him to the bench, Shiras proved to be an able judge. He wrote his fair share of opinions, though his concern for the Court’s institutional authority caused him to practice restraint in authoring dissents; he wrote only 14 dissenting opinions in nearly 11 years on the Court. In all, Shiras participated actively in the life of the Court, though he almost never took the center stage occupied by more influential justices of the times. More craftsman than artist, Sliiras’s opinions were generally well respected, even though they seldom touched on the great issues of the day.

      During his years on the Court, George Shiras lived a relatively quiet life in Washington with his wife. The couple declined to engage in the rounds of social activities customary for his prominent post. After Shiras had been an associate justice for a little more than 10 years, he kept a longstanding commitment he had made to retire after a decade of service on the Court. Elderly, but still vigorous, he submitted his resignation on February 23, 1903, and he lived another 21 years in retirement before dying on August 2, 1924, in Pittsburgh, at the venerable age of 92.

    Politics

    On one occasion, however, George Shiras became the center of national attention in a controversial case. In the last years of the 19th century, the Supreme Court considered a constitutional challenge to the federal income tax law passed in 1894. The case, Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co. (1895), stirred national passions and produced no little confusion on the Supreme Court itself. On the issue of whedter a tax on private and corporate incomes was a “direct” tax, and thus required by the Constitution to be apportioned to the states according to their populations, the Court split badly. Only eight justices participated in the original decision of the case, and these divided evenly on the crucial question. At the time, Shiras was widely believed to have been one of the justices who voted to uphold the constitutionality of the income tax, though the positions of the justices in the original decision were not announced by die Court. Instead, the justices decided to reconsider the case. Justice Howell Edmunds Jackson, suffering from a terminal illness, had not participated in the original decision, but when the Court reconsidered the matter, he cast his vote in support of the consti-tutionality of the tax. 1 he final vote in the case, though, was 5-4, invalidating die income tax. This meant that one of the justices who had originally approved the tax had switched his vote. At the time, Shiras was thought to be the guilty party, though subsequent Court historians have doubted this. In any event, Shiras suffered fierce attacks for his vote in the case, and he was momentarily cast into the harsh glare of attention front a nation that would ultimately vote the justices down by enacting the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, authorizing the federal income tax.

    Party affiliation: Republican Party

    Religion

    Denomination: Presbyterianism

    Connections

    • He married Lillie E. Kennedy in 1857; the couple would eventually have two sons, both lawyers, one a U.S. congressman.
    • Wife: Lillie E. Kennedy - United States
    GEORGE SHIRAS JR.
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    Died August 2, 1924
    (aged 92)
    Nationality
    • 1849
      Ohio University
      Athens, Ohio, United States
    • 1851 - 1853
      Yale University
      Connecticut, United States
    • July 26, 1892 - February 26, 1903
      Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States
      Washington, D.C., United States