John Marshall Harlan was an American jurist who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from 1955 to 1971. Mr. Harlan was a conservative icon of the U.S. Supreme Court who practiced a unique form of jurisprudence combining judicial restraint and activism.
Mr. Harlan was born in Chicago, Illinois, United States, on May 20, 1899. He was the son of John Maynard Harlan and Elizabeth Palmer Harlan. His father was a distinguished Chicago attorney, active as a Republican in the city’s politics, who served as an alderman and made two unsuccessful bids to become city mayor. The grandfather whose name he bore served as an associate justice on the Supreme Court from 1877 to 1911 and was famous for having dissented from the Court’s approval of segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and for insisting that the Constitution required the law to be "color-blind."
John Harlan received his early education at a boarding school in Oakville, Ontario, and then at the Lake Placid School in New York. He subsequently matriculated at Princeton University in 1916 and graduated with Bachelor of Arts in 1920 after compiling an outstanding university career and winning a Rhodes scholarship that allowed him to study law at Balliol College in Oxford, England, for the next three years. After Harlan’s return to the United States in 1923, he found a position with the Wall Street firm of Root, Clark, Buckner & Howland. One of the firm’s partners, Emory R. Buckner, advised him to obtain a law degree from an American law school. Mr. Harlan complied by earning Bachelor of Laws from New York Law School over the course of a year while he continued to work for the firm.
Emory R. Buckner was appointed U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Mr. Harlan left the firm to become Buckner’s assistant, assuming responsibility for the prosecution of Prohibition violations. By 1927 both Buckner and Harlan had returned to the Root, Clark, Buckner & Howland firm, but late in the year, the two men undertook another political charge - this time to investigate graft involving municipal sewer construction.
John Harlan worked as a special assistant attorney general with Emory Buckner for the next two years. In 1930 Harlan returned to his former law firm and was made a partner the following year. Over the next decade, he grew to be one of the city’s premier trial lawyers.
When the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor intruded on the nation’s peace in December 1941 and the United States entered World War II, he sought a military position. He obtained a post in England as chief of the Operational Analysis section of the Eighth Air Force. There, with a team of other civilians, Mr. Harlan advised the air force concerning bombing missions, helping to improve the accuracy of bombing raids.
The 46-year-old Harlan returned home in 1945 and resumed a litigation practice that became nationally prominent. To his work for important clients such as Du Pont Corporation, Mr. Harlan added a substantial range of professional activities. He served as director of the Legal Aid Society and was deeply involved in the activities of the New York City Bar Association. A new opportunity for public service presented itself to Harlan in 1951, when he was appointed chief counsel for the New York State Crime Commission, which was immersed in an investigation concerning the inroads of organized crime on state government. This post, which Harlan held from 1951 through 1953, brought him into contact with Herbert Brownell, an associate of New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey. Soon thereafter, Mr. Brownell became the attorney general for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and he offered Mr. Harlan a seat on the prestigious U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
John Harlan accepted the appointment and took his seat in March 1954, but his career on this appellate court proved to be extraordinarily brief. In October that year, Associate Justice Robert Jackson died of a heart attack, and President Eisenhower promptly nominated Harlan to assume the vacant seat on the Court. Mr. Harlan’s nomination, though, collided with the anger of southern senators over the Court’s decision the previous spring in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which declared public school segregation unconstitutional. They were able to hold Mr. Harlan’s nomination hostage for a short period while they railed against the Court. But President Eisenhower resubmitted Harlan’s nomination on January 10, 1955, and two months later the Senate finally confirmed Harlan by a vote of 71-11. He took his seat on the Court on March 28, 1955.
Mr. Harlan’s vision began to fail during the 1960s. He continued to labor at the work of the Court, however, until persistent back pain caused by cancer of the spine eventually disabled him toward the beginning of the following decade. Harlan retired from the Court on September 23, 1971.
John Harlan was an adherent of the Republican Party. Mr. Harlan was the most eloquent and precisely reasoned advocate of judicial conservativism. He believed that individual liberty was best protected by ensuring appropriate legal procedures and vigilantly policing the separate boundaries between political powers, rather than by rushing to defend particular liberties directly with the strong arm of the Constitution. He denied that every problem had a constitutional fix. Harlan challenged his colleagues’ belief that "every major social ill in this country can find its cure in some constitutional principle, and that this Court should take the lead in promoting reform when other branches of government fail to act." He believed firmly in a federalism that respected the role of states in the nation’s life and often dissented from Court decisions that imposed a single constitutional standard on both federal and state governments.
He believed in maintaining a strict dividing line between federal and state authority and opposed the tendency of the Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren to intrude into what Mr. Harlan considered matters not under its strictly constitutional purview. This stance earned him the reputation of a conservative, despite the moderate cast of some of his opinions.
Mr. Harlan idealized diversity and pluralism and loathed what he viewed as the compelled uniformity the Court was forcing on the country. He protested his colleagues' insistence that virtually all elected members of state and local government represent districts of equal population. He also fought a long losing battle against imposing most federal criminal procedures on the states by incorporating them into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. John Harlan thought the Constitution required of state criminal procedure only fundamental fairness, not compliance with every rule the federal courts had to follow. By binding the states to national standards of its own making, he argued, the Supreme Court was precluding them from engaging in potentially productive experimentation.
Harlan was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1960.
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
John Harlan established a reputation as a "lawyer's judge" who wrote carefully crafted and scholarly opinions which explicated in great detail the reasons for his decisions. Harlan also worked hard. He wore a gold watch which had belonged to the first Justice Harlan.
Quotes from others about the person
“Paul Freund: "His thinking threw light in a very introspective way on the entire process of the judicial function. His decisions, beyond just the vote they represented, were sufficiently philosophical to be of enduring interest. He decided the case before him with that respect for its particulars, its special features, that marks alike the honest artist and the just judge."”
Sport & Clubs
In 1928, John Harlan married Ethel Andrews, who was the daughter of Yale history professor Charles McLean Andrews. This was the second marriage for her. Mrs. Andrews was originally married to a New York architect Henry K. Murphy, who was twenty years her elder. After she divorced Murphy in 1927, her brother John invited her to a Christmas party at Root, Clark, Buckner & Howland, where she was introduced to John Harlan. They saw each other regularly afterward and married on November 10, 1928, in Farmington, Connecticut. John and Ethel Harlan had one daughter, Evangeline Dillingham (born on February 2, 1932).