Joseph Rucker Lamar was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court appointed by President William Howard Taft. A cousin of former associate justice Lucius Lamar, he served from 1911 until his death in 1916.
Joseph Rucker Lamar was born on a plantation in Elbert County, Georgia, on October 14, 1857, three and a half years before the outbreak of Civil War. He was the child of an illustrious southern family, both on his mother’s and his father’s side, with near relatives including Mirabeau Lamar, who served as president of the Republic of Texas from 1838 to 1841, and L.Q.C. Lamar, congressman, secretary of the interior, and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1888 to 1893. Joseph’s father, James Lamar, studied law and was admitted to practice. But he ultimately became a convert to the Disciples of Christ and instead of practicing law, he became the pastor of the Disciples of Christ Church in Augusta, Georgia. Joseph’s mother, Mary Rucker Lamar, died before he turned seven years old. Driven for a time from Augusta by General Sherman’s siege, James Lamar eventually remarried and returned to his pastorate in Augusta in 1865. There, next door to the home of the Presbyterian pastor, the young Joseph Lamar became a boyhood friend of that pastor’s son, Woodrow Wilson.
By 1870 the Wilsons had moved away from Georgia, and Joseph and his brother were sent to the first of a series of private schools, including the Richmond Academy in Augusta and the Penn Lucy Academy in Baldmore, Maryland. In 1874 Joseph began his college education at the University of Georgia but had to withdraw in his second year there because of illness. In the meantime his father accepted a new pastorate in Louisville, Kentucky, and eventually persuaded his two sons to complete their college educations at his alma mater, Bethany College in West Virginia, from which Joseph graduated in 1877. Following his graduation, Lamar set out to prepare himself for the career in law that his father had abandoned for the ministry. He attended Washington and Lee University in Virginia for a time but abandoned this study after a semester in order to read law with Henry Clay Foster, a prominent Augusta attorney. Lamar was admitted to practice law in Georgia in April 1878, at the age of 21.
Though admitted to practice law in Georgia, Lamar did not immediately take advantage of this privilege. Instead, he taught Latin for a year at Bethany College. But in 1880 his legal mentor, Henry Clay Foster, offered to form a partnership with him, and Lamar quickly accepted this opportunity. For the next decade until Foster’s death in 1890, the two men practiced law together. During the later part of this decade Lamar won election to the Georgia legislature, where he served from 1886 to 1889 and where he made important contributions in the area of law reform. After Foster’s death, Lamar continued to practice law and at the same time became even more involved in public affairs. In 1893, the governor of Georgia appointed him to a commission assigned the task of revising Georgia’s legal codes. In 1898 he was appointed by the Georgia Supreme Court to begin what became a decade of service on the state board that examined the character and fitness of bar applicants. He served as chairman of this board from 1905 to 1910. During this period Lamar earned additional recognition for a series of legal articles he penned concerning the history of Georgia law.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Joseph Lamar numbered among Georgia’s most prominent attorneys. When a vacancy on the Georgia Supreme Court occurred in 1902, it came as no surprise that Governor J. S. Terrell would turn to Lamar to fill it. Lamar served with distinction from 1903 to 1905 but ultimately resigned to return to the private practice of law. Establishing a new partnership with E.H. Callaway, also a former judge, Lamar threw himself into representing a variety of corporate and railroad clients.
A year after tins case, Lamar, an avid golfer, played the most important series of games of Iris life. President-elect William Howard Taft had decided to recuperate from his arduous presidential campaign by vacationing in Augusta, where he played golf frequently with Joseph Lamar. He received a favorable impression of Lamar, such that when he assumed office, he contemplated appointing the Georgian to the Commerce Court. Taft conferred with Georgia Senator Augustas O. Bacon, who suggested that the Supreme Court would be a better placement for Lamar. The president agreed and nominated Lamar to fill the seat that Edward D. White had vacated on being named chief justice of the Court. Lamar, a Democrat, feared that his nomination might not pass the Senate; but on December 15, 1910, the Senate unanimously confirmed the president’s choice, and Joseph Rucker Lamar took his seat on the Supreme Court on January 3,1911.
After Lamar’s childhood friend Woodrow Wilson became president in 1912, he tapped Lamar to head a diplomatic mission to Mexico in 1914 to resolve a dispute there. But the effort required in this mission, compounded by Lamar’s work on the Court, proved so stressful that it incapacitated the justice for a time during the Court’s 1914 term. He would not serve an¬other. In September 1915 he suffered a stroke that prevented him from beginning the Court’s new term, and he died at die age of 58 in Washington, D.C., on January 2,1916.
Lamar served five unremarkable years on the high court—unremarkable partly because of his own moderate temperament and partly because the Court itself decided few questions of great note during this period. Those it did decide produced broad consensus among the justices rather than sharp differences of opinion. The Court approved modest expansions in the areas of federal and state power over economic matters—reflecting, in so doing, the general tenor of the times. Essential conservativism dressed in a robe of modest progressivism characterized the Court during this period—and it characterized Justice Joseph Lamar as well. His most famous opinion combined both elements. In Gompers v. Bucks Stove and Range Company (1891), Lamar spoke for a unanimous Court in overturning on a technicality a contempt citation issued against certain labor organizers but supporting the use of injunctions against labor boycotts. The unanimity of the Court in Gompers reflected a harmony that generally prevailed during the years of Lamar’s service. Only eight times during tire course of his tenure did Lamar deem it necessary to pen a dissent from the decision announced by a majority of his brethren.
In 1879 he married Clarinda Huntington Pendelton. Their union, which survived until Lamar’s death his 1916, produced two sons and a daughter.