Harold Hitz Burton was an American politician and lawyer. He served as the 45th mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, as a U.S. Senator from Ohio, and as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He was known as a dispassionate jurist who prized equal justice under the law.
Harold Hitz Burton was bom in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, on June 22,1888, to Alfred Edgar Burton and Gertrude Hitz Burton. His father was a civil engineering professor and the dean of the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During his early childhood, Harold lived with his mother in Switzerland, but she died when he was seven years old, upon which he returned to the United States to live with his father.
After his early education, Burton attended Bowdoin College in Maine, where he was captain of the football team and elected Phi Beta Kappa. He graduated from Bowdin in 1909, and thereafter enrolled in Harvard Law School, receiving his LL.B. in 1912.
In spite of Burton’s roots in the East, he decided after graduating from law school that professional opportunities for him would be more plentiful in the West, and so he moved with his wife to Cleveland, Ohio. There he practiced law for two years with an uncle of his wife, and when the uncle migrated to Salt Lake City, Utah, Burton followed with his family. In Salt Lake and later in Boise, Idaho, he worked for public utilities, until World War I found him enlisting in the army and receiving a commission as a first lieutenant. After die war, during which he was awarded the Purple Heart and the Belgian Croix tie Guerre, Burton resigned with die rank of captain in 1919 and returned to Cleveland, Ohio, where he practiced law with a firm there. In 1925 he became a partner in the firm of Cull, Burton & Laughlin, representing business and commercial interests and teaching corporation law part-time at Western Reserve University Law School. In addition, he was active in the affairs of the American Legion and in the First Unitarian Church of Cleveland.
By the end of the 1920s, Harold Burton had made his first foray into politics, winning election to die Ohio legislature as a Republican in 1928. The following year he began a direc-ycar term of service as the director of law for Cleveland. During part of this period he was acting mayor of Cleveland. After briefly returning to practice widi the firm of Andrews, Hadden, and Burton from 1932 to 1935, he was elected mayor of Cleveland in 1935 and enthusiastically reelected twice more. In 1940 he entered the national stage by winning election to the U.S. Senate. There he worked closely with Senator Harry S. Truman, the future president, on the Truman Committee, which investigated wartime claims against the government. Though the two men were divided by party affiliations, they were both pragmatists rather than ideologues and found that they shared a common approach to many issues.After Truman’s inauguration as president in 1945, Burton’s relationship with the former senator bore important fruit. Justice Owen J. Roberts retired in the summer of 1945, and one of Truman’s ambitions in appointing a successor was to satisfy the complaints of Republicans—with whom the president was anxious to work cordially—that the Court lacked a bipartisan complexion. No Republican had received an appointment since the Hoover administration, and Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone was the only remaining Republican on a Court dominated by the Democratic appointees of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Burton was a Republican the president trusted. Moreover, elevating him to the Supreme Court was likely to yield the appointment of a Democratic replacement in the Senate by Ohio’s Democratic governor. Thus, Truman nominated Harold Burton as associate justice of the Supreme Court on September 18, 1945, and the Senate promptly confirmed the appointment the next day. On October 1,1945, Burton took the oath of office and launched a 13-year career as an associate justice.
Truman generally had cause to be satisfied with his appointee’s performance on the Court. Although Burton joined in the majority decision that delivered a constitutional rebuke to President Truman’s attempt to seize steel mills during the Korean War in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952), he generally followed the kind of moderately conservative course that might have been expected from his appointment. He allied himself in the main with justices who favored judicial restraint and against those—such as Hugo L. Black, William O. Douglas, Frank Murphy, and Wiley B. Rutledge—who practiced greater judicial activism. He tended to uphold exercises of power Harold Hitz Burton by federal and state governments, in, for example, areas such as criminal law and national security', including government treatment of individuals who belonged to Communist organizations.
On die racial questions that became prominent during his tenure, Justice Burton was generally a solid opponent of segregation. The exception was his lone dissent in Mortem v. Virginia (1946), which struck down a Virginia law requiring blacks to sit in the back of buses traveling across state lines. By the beginning of the next decade, however, Burton sided with majorities tliat waged increasing war against racially discriminatory laws. In 1950 he joined the Court’s decisions striking down attempts to consign African Americans to allegedly “separate but equal”—but obviously inferior—higher education opportunities in Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (1950). That same year he wrote die Court’s opinion in Henderson v. United States f 1950), declaring that a state law requiring a partition between blacks and whites in railroad dining facilities violated Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce under the Constitution’s commerce clause. Four years later Burton joined the Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), declaring segregation in public schools a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.
Member Board Education, East Cleveland, 1928-1929. Member Ohio House of Representatives, 1929. Served as First lieutenant, later captain 361st Infantry, 91st Division, United States Army, 1917-1919.
Member American, Ohio, Cleveland bar associations, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Army and Navy Union, Phi Beta Kappa, Delta Kappa Epsilon and Phi Alpha Delta. Clubs: Grange (honorary), Moose, Eagle, Exchange.
Married Selma Florence Smith, June 15, 1912. Children: Barbara (Mistress H. C. Weidner, Junior.