In general, Pierce Butler proved to be one of the most reactionary of the Court’s conservatives, so resolute in his positions that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes described him as a “monolith,” having “no seams the frost can get through.” Holmes concluded, “He is of one piece.” Butler consistently adopted a narrow reading of First Amendment freedoms, especially when exercised in furtherance of “unpatriotic” causes. Thus, he joined Justice McReynolds in dissent from the Court’s ruling in Stromberg v. California (1931), which overturned a woman’s conviction for displaying a red flag, and announced the opinion for the Court in United States v. Schwimmer (1929), rejecting the naturalization petition of a woman with religiously- rooted conscientious objections to military service. His willingness to use the Fourteenth Amendment to eliminate officially sanctioned racial discrimination was equally stunted. Together with McReynolds again, he dissented from the Court’s decision in the Scottsboro case, Powell v. Alabama (1932), which reversed the conviction of seven young black men accused of capital rape but denied adequate representation by counsel, and in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), in which a majority of the Court declared unconstitutional Missouri’s refusal to allow a black student to attend the state’s public law school.
In the area of economic regulation, Pierce proved to be implacably conservative, earning designation as one of the Four Horsemen, the quartet of justices—including McReynolds, Van Devanter, and Sutherland—who opposed New Deal programs. For a time, the Four Horsemen, sometimes joined by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and by Associate Justice Owen Roberts, dealt critical blows to a variety of New Deal programs by declaring them unconstitutional. Eventually though, President Roosevelt threatened to pack the Court with justices more hospitable to his legislative agenda, and Chief Justice Hughes and Associate Justice Roberts parted company with the Four Horsemen in 1937. Thereafter, the Four Horsemen found themselves consistently in the minority position.
Party affiliation: Democratic Party