John Johnston Parker received the Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1907 and a law degree in 1908.
John Johnston Parker worked his way through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he won numerous academic honors and prizes, became student government leader, and began a long oratorical career. Following a legal apprenticeship in Greensboro, North Carolina (1908), Parker practiced in Monroe. In 1922 he moved to Charlotte, where, until 1925, he headed the firm of Parker, Stewart, McRae and Bobbitt. As special assistant to the federal attorney general (1923 - 1924), his prosecution of several war fraud cases evoked praise from Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone and other high Justice Department officials. Parker joined the Republican party in 1908, thereby casting his lot with the "lily-white" and anti-Bryan "business respectables" faction that sought to promote and represent the nascent commercial and industrial sector of the state.
Through loyalty to and arduous efforts on behalf of the party organization, he climbed the political ladder: manager of John Motley Morehead's successful campaign for Congress (1908), Seventh District congressional nominee (1910), state attorney general candidate (1916), gubernatorial contender (1920), and member of the Republican National Committee and delegate-at-large to the Republican National Convention (1924). In his vigorous but losing 1920 campaign, he advocated protectionism and opposed American participation in the League of Nations. He favored state ratification of the woman's suffrage amendment, a workmen's compensation law, and protective legislation for women and children in industry.
The traditional race-baiting strategy of the Democratic party impelled him to state in 1920 that the then largely disenfranchised "negro as a class does not desire to enter politics. The Republican Party of North Carolina does not desire him to do so. President Calvin Coolidge appointed Parker to the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in 1925, and in 1930 President Herbert Hoover nominated him to be associate justice of the Supreme Court. The appointment reflected political, sectional, and jurisprudential considerations. Parker's judicial record of 184 written opinions received little publicity, but his single decision in United Mine Workers of America v. Red Jacket Consolidated Coal and Coke Company ignited massive opposition from organized labor and its allies.
The opinion had modified the sweeping district court injunction against United Mine Workers organizing efforts, but upheld that portion enjoining the union from "persuading" employees to break their nonunion contracts. Such "persuasion" indicated an "unlawful purpose" to interfere with production of bituminous coal prior to its shipment in interstate commerce, as proscribed by the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Landmark Supreme Court decisions sanctioned both application of the Sherman Act and the scope of the injunction approved by Parker. In addition the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People led a grass-roots lobbying campaign against the nomination. Although no evidence of racism appeared in Parker's judicial record, the association assailed him for his political statement of 1920. These and other factors caused a Senate confirmation defeat (41-39) on May 7, 1930. Parker continued unsuccessfully to seek a place on the Supreme Court, waging major efforts in 1941, 1942 - 1943, 1945, and 1954.
During his thirty-two years as appellate judge, Parker heard more than 4, 000 arguments and wrote opinions in approximately 1, 500 cases. These opinions reflect his ability to grasp complicated issues of fact and law. He believed that society constitutes an organism, and law, the life principle of that organism. Law arises out of life through the process of reason in the natural law tradition. "Law is not a static thing, " he said in Marshall v. Manese, "bound down by prior decisions and legislative enactments. It must change as the conditions of that life change. " But judges are not legislators; as Sir William Blackstone asserted, they find law. Thus, for Parker there was constantly a tension between the dynamic and the static, between the need to do justice in individual cases and the imperative of harmonizing national decisional law. Where gaps or ambiguity existed in declared law, his opinions manifested humanitarianism, reliance upon the "rule of reason, " presumption of the constitutionality of legislation, and belief that the Constitution was to be interpreted as a charter of government rather than as a contract. Parker took a position against laissez-faire on the controversial relationship between government and the economy.
The public welfare should not be left at the mercy of private individuals. Even in the 1920's he ordinarily upheld exercises of state police powers against challenges based on the due-process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the contract clause of the Constitution. Important New Deal regulatory legislation generally passed early muster under Parker's broad conception of the general welfare clause, and the federal bankruptcy power.
Yet in regulating economic life, government must be a liberating, not an oppressive, force; it must act justly in taking privately owned property for public use and in fixing prices of the products of such property. Major issues of civil liberties and civil rights came before Parker in the 1940's and 1950's. To the former he typically applied a version of the "clear and present danger" rule. Barnette v. West Virginia State Board of Education voided a compulsory flag salute law; Parker balanced religious freedom of Jehovah's Witnesses against the compelling nature of the interest of the state in enforcement of a secular regulation. But when those asserting First Amendment rights were members of a Communist conspiracy, there was "nothing in the Constitution or in any sound political theory which forbids [government] to take effective action to protect itself from being overthrown by force and violence . " notwithstanding the absence of a "clear and present danger".
In criminal appeals Parker treated alleged procedural errors with the due-process-based "fair trial" rule and labored to restrict the use of habeas corpus writs as vehicles of appeals from final decisions of high state courts. During Parker's last decade on the bench there was a rising volume of race relations litigation. Disenfranchisement resulting from state "white primary" laws and practices were enjoined as clearly discriminatory under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. Outside the electoral process he strictly applied the "separate but equal" standard in the light of reason, striking down discriminatory municipal zoning ordinances; public schoolteachers' salary schedules; union collective bargaining and seniority strategies.
But in Briggs v. Elliott, Parker followed Supreme Court precedent and resisted finding segregated public schools unconstitutional per se. Reversed by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Parker immediately complied. Hoping for "amicable adjustment" of the heated race question, he construed that decision as meaning "the Constitution does not require integration; it merely forbids discrimination . " Parker was administrator of his circuit as well as a member of the policymaking Judicial Conference of the United States. From 1941 to 1958 he served on sixteen of its committees and chaired those on punishment for crime, court reporting, habeas corpus, pretrial, venue and jurisdiction, appeal from interlocutory orders, and administration of the criminal laws.
Parker also supported broad federal court jurisdiction under the diversity of citizenship clause found in Article III of the Constitution, as well as compensated counsel and public defenders for indigent defendants (provided by law long after his death). Parker served as a member of the Council of the American Law Institute (1942 - 1958). As a leader in the American Bar Association (ABA) Section of Judicial Administration (chairman, 1937 - 1938; member of council, 1934 -1938, 1942 - 1958; chairman of that section's Special Committee on Improving the Administration of Justice, 1940 - 1946), as a member of the Judicial Conference (1930 - 1958), and as judicial adviser to the United States high commissioner for Germany (1949), he promoted judicial reforms intended to fortify an independent judiciary and protect that judicial function by means of judge-centered courts.
His enduring legacy included negation of popular influence over courts, enhancement of institutional autonomy of the judiciary as a coordinate branch of government, advancement of intrajudiciary unification, simplification and centralization of procedures and administration, and assertion of control by judges over court proceedings. Parker performed a wide variety of extrajudicial activities. They included long service on the board of trustees of the University of North Carolina (1921 - 1958).
Governor Oliver Max Gardner appointed him to the North Carolina Constitutional Commission (1931 - 1932), the report of which embodied many of his longheld views on modern government administration. In 1943 he served on the presidentially appointed Advisory Board on Just Compensation to the War Shipping Administration. The board formulated guidelines for the agency in fixing compensation paid for requisitioned vessels. During World War II, Parker advocated a world organization, free of old power politics, to enforce international law. Subsequently he became a strong defender of both the United Nations and collective security arrangements.
On September 24, 1945, President Truman commissioned him as alternate member for the United States of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany. There he contributed materially to development of the critical "conspiracy" issue in the judgment rendered by the court. As chairman of the ABA Committee on Offenses Against the Law of Nations (1946 - 1951) he perceived the Nuremberg trial as immeasurably strengthening the foundations of international law.
In November 1957 he became chairman of the General Crusade Committee of the Billy Graham Charlotte Crusade. "The great message of the Gospel, " he declared then, "is that peace will be achieved not through political machinery or international negotiations but through the cleansing of the hearts of men and women throughout the world and instilling in them a sense of responsibility to Almighty God and to the ideals and standards of human brotherhood. " Parker died in Washington, D. C. on March 17, 1958.
John Johnston Parker was a devout and biblically knowledgeable Episcopalian.
John Johnston Parker was a member of the Dialectic Society.
Six feet tall with gray-blue eyes, John Johnston Parker was somewhat reserved and possessed a deep sense of dignity and morality. His vast capacity for tedious, demanding work was offset by a genial personality and a wry sense of humor.
On November 23, 1910 John Johnston Parker married Maria Burgwin Maffitt. They had three children.