Charles Evans Hughes, Sr. was an American statesman, lawyer, and Republican politician from New York. He served as the 36th Governor of New York (1907–1910), Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1910–1916), United States Secretary of State (1921–1925), a judge on the Court of International Justice (1928–1930), and the 11th Chief Justice of the United States (1930–1941).
Charles Evans Hughes was born on April 11, 1862, in Glen Falls, New York, as the nation in which he would later play a prominent part struggled to survive the Civil War. His parents, whose character would form the foundation of his own, were hardworking and religiously devout. His father, David Charles Hughes, was a Baptist minister, and his mother, Mary Catherine Connelly Hughes, was a former school teacher. “Whatever I do, wherever I go,” he would later write, “when the question of right or wrong comes up, it is decided by what Pa or Ma will say if I did it.”
Charles, an only child, was precocious from an early age, reading English by the time he was three, Greek and German beginning when he was eight. When his parents tried to send their six-year-old son off to school, he suffered boredom and persuaded them to teach him at home by presenting them with the Charles E. Hughes Plan of Study.” The appeal worked, and Charles’s parents directed his early education until the family moved to New York City, where his father became secretary of die American Bible Union and Charles was enrolled in public school. By die time he was 14, Charles had been admitted to Madison College (later to become Colgate University). His parents had sent him to college, hoping that he would become a minister, but Charles’s college years saw him fix his aspirations instead on a career in law. In 1878 he transferred to Brown University, where he excelled, gaining admittance to Phi Beta Kappa at the end of his junior year, winning election as an editor of the student newspaper, and graduating third in his class.
A lack of financial resources left Hughes unable to begin formal legal studies immediately. He settled instead for a teaching position with the Delaware Academy in Delhi, New York, where he supplemented his teaching responsibilities by reading law in the office of William M. Gleason. By the fall of 1882, however, his father was able to support his entrance into Columbia Law School, from which he graduated with highest honors in 1884. Thereafter, he passed the bar examination—with a score of 99—and began work with the prestigious New York firm of Chamberlin, Carter, and Hornblower. Five years later he became a partner in a reorganized version of the firm, and on December 5, 1888, he married one of his partner’s daughters, Antoinette Carter, with whom he would have four children: a son, who would later serve as solicitor general of the United States, and three daughters. Within a few years of his marriage, however, Hughes left tite practice of law to teach at Cornell U niver- sity Law School after suffering from the effects of ill health and overwork. His firm managed to lure him back after two years, but even then, Hughes supplemented his legal practice by teaching at Cornell and at New York Law School.
In the years that followed, Hughes gradually acquired a reputation as one of New York’s brightest lawyers. In 1905 he gained statewide prominence after being designated counsel for a legislative committee investigating utility rates. Hughes ferreted out systematic abuses that had resulted in utility overcharges. That same year, another legislative committee drafted him to lead its investigation of insurance companies. Again, Hughes sifted through the details and machinations of a complex industry to reveal tire practices that padded the poekets of insurance executives and their cronies at the expense of the public. The following year, on the heels of these widely publicized and successful legislative crusades, Charles Evans Hughes was nominated as the Republican candidate for New York governor and won the general election handily. In this office he championed a host of progressive measures, including workers compensation laws and public commissions to oversee utilities.
Hughes’s reputation as a Republican reformer attracted the attention of President William Howard Taft, who appointed him on April 25, 1910, to fill the vacancy left on the Supreme Court when Justice David Brewer died. Hughes was easily confirmed by the Senate on May 2 and took his scat at the beginning of the Court’s next term, on October 10, 1910. raft had suggested to Hughes the possibility of his being advanced to the Court’s chief seat should the position become open during die president’s term of office. But Taft thought better of this when Chief Justice Melville Fuller died in the summer of 1910, for he aspired to sit in the seat of chief justice himself after leaving the presidency. “It seems strange,” Taft declared, “that the one place in the government which I would have liked to fill myself I am forced to give to another.” If he made the 48- year-old Hughes chief justice, then that seat on the Court might never become vacant during his own lifetime. Accordingly, Taft appointed Associate Justice Edward White—65 years old and likely to retire within a decade or so—to the position of chief justice.
Charles Evans Hughes served six years on the Court as an associate justice, carving a reputation for himself as a progressive justice in the area of civil rights and on the issue of whether federal and state governments should have power to regulate economic matters. Hughes left the Court, however, when on June 7,1916, die Republican party nominated him as its candidate for president against the Democratic in¬cumbent, President Woodrow Wilson. Hughes came close to the presidency, losing to Wilson by a narrow margin of 277 to 254 electoral votes and a popular vote of 9,126,300 to 8,546,789. With this defeat, Hughes returned to the private practice of law in New York City as the senior partner of Hughes, Rounds, Schurman, and Dwight, representing mainly corporate clients and appearing several times on their behalf before the Supreme Court on which he had previously sat.
In 1921 newly elected president Warren G. Harding immediately tapped Hughes to be his secretary of state; Hughes held this post for the next five years, into the administration of Calvin Coolidge. As secretary of state, Hughes spearheaded disarmament efforts after World War I and secured an international agreement guaranteeing Japan’s security in the Western Pacific and recognizing the Open Door principle with respect to China. After five years of diplomatic- service, however, Hughes returned once again to the private practice of law to shore up his personal finances.
During the years after Charles Evans Hughes had resigned from the Court, President William Howard Taft had managed to achieve his ambition of being named chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In February 1930, though, after just nine years, ill health forced Taft to resign; he died barely a month later. Twenty years earlier, Taft had declined to appoint Hughes as chief justice, but now another president, Herbert Hoover, awarded Hughes with the appointment that Taft had denied him. On the day Taft resigned, President Hoover announced his appointment of Charles Evans Hughes to fill the now-vacant seat of chief justice. But the warm acclaim that had greeted Hughes’s appointment as an associate justice of the Court in 1910 was absent in 1930. The New York lawyer’s frequent professional service on behalf of American corporate interests had made him suspect to many Democrats, and the Senate debated his nomination at length before finally confirming him as chief justice by a vote of 52-26 on February 24, 1930.
As the 1940s began, Chief Justice Hughes was nearly 80 years old. The nation had weathered its economic crisis and, through Hughes s leadership, the Court had weathered its showdown with a determined president. Above all, the chief justice was anxious to depart from the Court before his mental faculties departed him. Thus, on July 1, 1941, he resigned from the Court.
The Court whose reins Hughes now grasped presided over the legal affairs of a nation in desperate economic straits. Very shortly a new chief executive, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, attacked the nation’s economic woes by securing the passage of expansive New Deal legislation in Congress. In so doing, Roosevelt collided squarely with a predominantly conservative court that had, for the last three and a half decades, regularly curtailed the power of Congress to legislate on economic matters and had also frequently championed property and contract rights over the attempts by state and local governments to regulate commercial matters. Hughes was an inconsistent ally of the conservatives. In Номе Building and Loan Assoemtion v. Blaisdell (1934), for example, he joined with the Court’s liberals and announced the opinion for a 5-4 majority that upheld a state law suspending mortgage foreclosures against the constitutional challenge that it impaired contract obligations. The right of contract, Hughes reasoned, was not absolute, and might have to give way in the face of an economic emergency.
In the main, however, the chief justice presided over a Court that soon dealt the Roosevelt administration crucial defeats. In particular, on what came to be known as “Black Monday”—May 27, 1935—a unanimous Court struck down three key pieces of New Deal legislation, including the National Recovery Act, which was invalidated in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (1935) in an opinion written for the Court by Chief Justice Hughes. Although the entire Court joined in these cases, the Court’s great triumvirate of liberals—Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, and Harlan Fiske Stone—more often refused to join the Court’s conservatives in striking down federal and state economic legislation. Chief Justice Hughes, however, though often a swing vote on die Court, joined many of the decisions drat accomplished these results.
After President Roosevelt’s landslide reelection in 1936, he moved to strike back against the Court by proposing his “courtpacking” plan, according to which a new justice would be added to the Court for each justice who refused to retire at the age of 70. The president claimed that the elderly justices—there were six at the time—were not able to carry the Court’s heavy workload and needed relief. In fact, his plan was clearly intended to wrest control of the Court away from its conservatives. The proposal, however, received a cool welcome in Congress. Moieover, shortiy after the president announced his plan, the Court, led by Chief Justice Hughes, veered sharply away from its previous path and, beginning in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937), upheld one key piece after another of New Deal legislation. Then and now, it appeared to some observers that the chief justice had sacrificed principle to pragmatism and had reversed positions he had made plain in earlier cases. In any event, with the crisis between Court and president averted, Congress declined to enact President Roosevelt’s plan.
Hughes often voted with the Court’s conservatives on issues relating to government regulation of the economy. But his record in the area of civil rights and civil liberties was generally more progressive. For example, he wrote the opinion for the Court in an early victory for free speech, Stromberg v. California (1931), which overturned a state law prohibiting the use of red flags. Hughes’s stance in the case hearkened back to his days as an attorney a decade earlier, when he had championed the cause of five New York legislators who had been denied their scats because they belonged to the Socialist party. Later in his tenure, Hughes announced the decision for the Court in Dejonge v. Oregon (1937), which overturned a state conviction of a man for conducting a meeting of the Communist party. Peaceable assembly for lawful discussion,” he declared emphatically, “cannot be made a crime.