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John Hessin Clarke

John Hessin Clarke was an American lawyer and judge who served as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1916 to 1922.


  • John Hessin Clarke was born on September 18, 1857, in New Lisbon, Ohio, the son of John Clarke and Melissa Hessin Clarke. The elder John Clarke had emigrated from Ireland nearly three decades earlier, settled in New Lisbon, and established a prosperous career as a lawyer and later a county court judge.

  • Education

    • The younger Clarke attended high school in New Lisbon and later enrolled in Western Reserve College, from which he graduated in 1877, a member of Phi Delta Phi. He spent the following year studying law with his father, and he was admitted to the bar in the fall of 1878.


    • He began his legal career practicing law with his father in New Lisbon but decided to relocate to Youngstown in 1880, where he set up his own legal practice and purchased an interest in a local Democratic newspaper, the Youngstown Vindicator. Through Clarke’s influence the paper became a leading progressive voice. His legal practice, however, found its clientele chiefly among railroads and other corporate interests, for whom he proved himself to be an able advocate in court. This tension between Clarke’s own political commitments and those of his generally conservative business clients became a feature of his professional life; it followed him when he moved to Cleveland in 1897 to join the firm of Williamson and Cushing where, once again, he represented a variety of business interests, including the Nickle Plate Railroad.Active early in political affairs, John Clarke initially seemed to have no aspirations for a political office himself. As a “Gold Bug,” though, Clarke vigorously campaigned against William Jennings Bryan’s attempt to abolish the gold standard for currency. Finally, in 1904 he ran as a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, but his progressive campaign suffered defeat at the hands of the incumbent, Mark Hanna. He made another bid for the Senate 10 years later but eventually dropped out of the race when President Woodrow Wilson appointed him as a judge on the federal district court for the northern district of Ohio. He served a rather undistinguished two years in this position, his tenure on the district court being chiefly remembered for the elaborate receptions he held for people being naturalized in his court.

      When Associate Justice Charles Evans Hughes retired from the U.S. Supreme Court to pursue a presidential bid, President Wilson took the opportunity to nominate Clarke to fill the vacancy on July 14, 1916. Wilson had already placed one progressive on the high Court, Louis D. Brandeis, and he hoped that Clarke’s additional liberal influence would help to blunt the Court’s overall conservative stance. The Senate confirmed the nomination soon afterward, and Clarke took the oath of office on October 9, 1916.Once on the Court, Clarke generally met Wilson’s expectations in his voting patterns. For example, he joined Justices Holmes, McKenna, and Brandeis in dissent when a majority of the Court struck down a federal law that prohibited the interstate transportation of goods made with child labor in Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918). He also welcomed the use of antitrust laws against monopolies and supported labor rights. But his progressivism on economic matters did not always follow into the territory of individual rights. Perhaps his most famous majority opinion for the Court was one that cast Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as a dissenter. In Abrams v. United States (1919), the Court upheld the conviction of certain Russian born socialists for distributing leaflets that castigated President Wilson for sending U.S. troops to Russia and called for a general workers’ strike to protest this action. A majority of the Court, in an opinion written by Clarke, sustained the conviction of the defendants under the Sedition Act of 1918 and rejected the defendants’ argument that their right to freedom of speech had been violated. Holmes, joined by Brandeis in his dissent, scoffed at the supposed threat to the United States being engineered by “the surreptitious publishing of a silly leaflet by an unknown man.”

      In the main, Clarke did not create an altogether favorable impression on his colleagues while on the Court. Holmes complained that

      Clarke frequently made up his mind about the outcome of cases in advance, though he admitted missing his “affectionate companionship” once Clarke had resigned from the Court. Chief Justice William Howard Taft thought that Clarke imagined—wrongly—that deciding cases was like voting on bills in Congress. Justice McReynolds, notorious for his rudeness, made Clarke the special object of his venom and went so far as to refuse to sign the Court’s farewell letter to Clarke on his resignation.


    In fact, history remembers Clarke more for his resignation from the Court than for anything he did while he was a justice. In September 1922 he announced his retirement and explained to Justice Brandeis his reason for doing so:

    I would die happier if I should do all that is possible to promote the entrance of our government into die League of Nations than if I continued to devote my time to determining whether a drunken Indian had been deprived of his land before he died or whether the digging of a ditch in Iowa was constitutional or not.

    The latter part of his explanation suggests that Clarke lacked the temperament and patience necessary to continue the work of a Supreme Court justice, which involved not only celebrated cases raising issues of national importance but also a myriad of lesser disputes for which the Court was the final arbiter. Whatever his reasons, though, many observers found them insufficient. Former President Wilson, in particular, found no pleasure in Clarke’s resignation, even though it was to pursue a cause dear to Wilson himself: U.S. membership in the League of Nations. He would have rather had Clarke remain as a progressive influence on the Court.

    Party affiliation: Democratic Party

    John Clarke
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    Born September 18, 1857
    Died March 22, 1945
    (aged 87)
    • July 21, 1914 - July 24, 1916
      Judge, United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio
    • July 24, 1916 - September 18, 1922
      Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States
      Washington, D.C., United States