Charles Evans Whittaker is a testimony to what dedicated toil may accom-plish, and also to what it may not. A night-school law graduate who achieved prominence as a midwestern lawyer and then a federal trial and appellate judge, Whittaker’s life was a rags-to-riches story such as he read in Horatio Alger as a young boy.
Charles Evans Whittaker was born on February 22, 1901, on a farm near Troy, Kansas, the son of Charles Whittaker and Ida Miller Whittaker. Young Charles attended a nearby school for his first nine years, and then he spent a year and a half riding to and from Troy High School, some six miles away from the family farm. His mother died on his 16th birthday, a loss that prompted Whittaker to drop out of high school to work with his father on the farm and earn extra money hunting game and selling the pelts.
Three years later, with the modest sum of money he had saved, he set out for Kansas City, Missouri, where he intended to study law. There he persuaded the Kansas City Law School, winch offered courses at night, to accept him as a law student even though he lacked both a high school and a college degree. The law school insisted that he make up the high school courses he had missed but allowed him to begin his study of the law. At the same time, Whittaker had taken a position as an office boy with Watson, Gage & Ess, a Kansas City law firm. From 1920, when he started law school, until 1924, when he completed his studies, Whittaker worked full-time for Watson, Gage, attended law school classes at night, and studied after his classes concluded. Along the way, he managed to pass the Missouri bar exam in 1923, the year before he graduated from law school. The same year he took a job at Watson, Gage as a lawyer.
Over the next decade, Whittaker climbed the ranks of seniority in the firm: In 1930 he became a partner and in 1932 he had his name added to the firm’s name. Meanwhile, he married Winifred R. Pugh in 1928; this union would eventually produce three sons. For the first part of his legal career, Whittaker was a trial lawyer, but by the third decade of law practice he had drifted away from litigation and had become instead a general legal adviser for a variety of corporate clients such as Union Pacific and Montgomery Ward. To this legal work he added participation in bar activities, including a term of service as the president of the Mis¬souri State Bar Association, and in the affairs of the Methodist church of which he was a member. In all these activities Whittaker worked diligently, perhaps even compulsively, attending single-mindedly to lais responsibilities; yet he never frilly overcame the educational deficits that he had brought with him to adulthood.
When a position as a federal judge became vacant in March 1954, Whittaker let it be known that he wanted it. One of his clients was a friend of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and was able to recommend Whittaker for the position; thus, Whittaker became a judge on the federal district court for Missouri’s western district in July 1954. He brought with him to the federal bench the same work ethic that had served him well in private practice and won praise for clearing out a docket of cases that had backlogged the court prior to his appointment. Two years later, a vacancy appeared on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit when that court’s only Missouri judge died. Eisenhower nominated Whittaker to that position, and after the Senate confirmed the appointment, Whittaker undertook a career of less than a year on the federal court of appeals. A further opportunity for promotion presented itself when Justice Stanley Reed retired from the Supreme Court in February 1957. Previous presidential administrations had placed men on the Court with no judicial experience. Eisenhower had made one such appointment himself to the Court—former California attorney general and governor Earl Warren. But the president subsequently determined to make judicial experience a necessary prerequisite for his further nominations to the Court. He therefore nominated Whittaker, with three years of federal judicial experience, to assume the vacancy on the Court left by Stanley Reed’s retirement. The Senate confirmed Whittaker’s appointment unanimously, and he took the oath of office as an associate justice on the Supreme Court on March 25, 1957.
Such problems as Whittaker had in accom¬plishing his responsibilities as a Supreme Court justice had nothing to do with his willingness to work hard. Diligent work was his lifelong habit, and he robed himself with it on the Court just has he had throughout his life. But mere toil proved to be insufficient to carry the day. By 1962 the stress of his position and of overwork trying to live up to it finally' broke Whit¬taker’s health. Toward die beginning of March 1962, he entered Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There he was advised to retire for the sake of his health. Thus, on April 1, 1962, Charles Whittaker retired from the Court.
It took the former justice more than a year to regain Ids health. Even after he left the Court, though, Whittaker seemed—by the choice of his activities—to be something less than a ty'pical retired Supreme Court justice. He worked for a time for General Motors and then helped to draft a code of ethics for U.S. senators. But he also found time for speaking engagements, winch he used to criticize a Court that had become increasingly' activist in the protection of civil rights and liberties after his retirement from it. For this criticism, he earned the observation from Chief Justice Earl Warren that he “could never make up his mind about decisions until he left the Court.”
Charles Evans Whittaker brought essentially conservative values to the Court, but he liked to think of himself—a nominal Republican— as having no real political leanings. He was therefore prepared to take on the cases that came before him as a Supreme Court justice one by one, without established predilections. He lacked a firm judicial philosophy, however, and his decisions on the Court seemed somewhat erratic to most observers. He tended to vote conservatively, joining with Justices Felix Frankfurter, Harold Burton, Tom C. Clark, and John Marshall Harlan more often than with the Court’s liberal justices: Earl Warren, Hugo L. Black, William O. Douglas, and William J. Brennan, Jr. But in particular cases he might supply the crucial fifth vote necessary to achieve some liberal result. Since these varying results were not accompanied by solid opinions explaining the grounds for Whittaker’s decisions, they earned the justice no praise either from his colleagues on the Court or from the Court’s observers. He seemed to be, radier, a man who could not make up his mind. His indecision crippled such contribution as he might otherwise have made to die Court. On one occasion, for example, Whittaker had been assigned to write the majority opinion in Meyer v. United States (1960). Unable to make any headway on it, he eventually admitted to Justice William O. Douglas, who had already written a dissenting opinion in the case, that he had not been able to complete the majority' opinion. Douglas then offered to write it for Whittaker and, when Whittaker acquiesced, Douglas ended up preparing both opinions—one supporting the Court’s decision and one opposing it.
In 1932 he married Winifred R. Pugh in 1928; this union would eventually produce three sons.