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Mahlon Pitney

judge , jurist , lawyer , politician

Mahlon R. Pitney was an American jurist and Republican Party politician from New Jersey, who served in the United States Congress and as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.


Mahlon Pitney was born on February 5,1858, on a farm near Morristown, New Jersey, the second son of Henry Cooper Pitney and Sarah Louisa Halsted Pitney. His father practiced law and encouraged his son to pursue the same vocation. The two would eventually serve together briefly in the New Jersey state judicial system.


After an early education in private schools, Mahlon entered the College of New Jersey (eventually to become Princeton University) in 1875, where he was a classmate of future president VVoodrow Wilson. There, in addition to his studies, he proved to be a talented debater and also managed the college’s baseball team. He graduated in 1879 and promptly turned to the study of law in his father’s office, learning it, he later wrote, mostly by absorption from his father, who was “a walking encyclopedia of the law.” Once he passed the bar in 1882, however, he escaped his father’s shadow and set up practice in Dover, New Jersey. There he also found time to serve as director of an iron company and to help manage a department store.


Admitted to bar, 1882, and practiced at Morristown. Elected to 54th and 55th Congresses (1895-1899). Member New Jersey Senate, 1899-1901 (president 1901).

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, 1901-1908. Chancellor of New Jersey, term 1908-1915, resigned, March 1912. Appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, March 13, 1912, to succeed John M. Harlan, deceased.

Resigned, December 31, 1922.


The next, and final, professional advancement Mahlon Pitney achieved came as a surprise to him, and began with the death of Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan on October 14, 1911. The choice of Harlan’s successor fell to President William Howard Taft. At first, Judge William C. Hook of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit seemed likely to obtain the appointment to fill the vacancy, but controversy quickly surrounded Hook’s candidacy and Taft ultimately abandoned it. In mid-February 1912, however, the president met Pitney at a dinner in Newark and was so impressed by their conversation together that he announced his nomination of Pitney for a seat on the Supreme Court a week later, on February 19. This, the last of Taft s ap pointments to the Court, did not receive a warm welcome in the Senate. As New Jersey chancellor, Pitney had written an antiunion opinion in Jones Glass Co. v. Glass Bottle Blowers Association (1908), and the views he revealed in that case promptly stirred Democrats and Progressive Re-publicans to oppose his nomination. One critic pronounced Pitney “irrevocably pledged to property rigilts as against human rights” and declared that he was “the consistent enemy of the working man.” Taft, though, insisted in support of his nominee that Pitney was “of a great lawyer stock,” and Pitney himself denied that he was “the enemy of labor.” In the end, the Senate confirmed Pitney’s nomination to die Court on March 13,1912, by a vote of 50-26.

As it turned out, Pitney’s opponents had measured the man at least partially correctly. Over the decade that he served on the Court, he regularly, if not invariably, demonstrated himself to be the legal foe of organized labor. In 1915 he wrote the Court’s opinion in what would be his most famous case, Coppajje v. Kansas (1915), involving the constitutionality of a state law prohibiting the use of so-called yellow-dog contracts, by which employees accepted employment on the condition that they not join a union. Pitney declared for the U.S. Supreme Court that tire attempt to prohibit yellow-dog contracts was unconstitutional because it violated the freedom of contract protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. Pitney’s opinion in this and other cases amply supported the prognostication at the time of his nomination that he would be antiunion, but the corollary accusation that he would prove to be the enemy of the workingman finds less support in Pitney’s judicial career. In feet, he regularly championed the legality of state workers’ compensation laws in cases such as New York Central Railroad Co. v. White (1917). The great liberal justice Louis Brandeis announced that but for Pitney we would have had no workmen’s compensation laws.” In truth, Pitney seems to have distrusted economic combinations whether on the corporate or the labor side. He was, for example, happy to apply the antitrust provisions of the Sherman Antitrust Act to both.


Member New Jersey Senate, 1899-1901 (president 1901).


In 1891, he married Florence T. Shelton, with whom he would have three children: Guy Shelton; Mahlon, Jr.; and Beatrice Louis.

Henry C. Pitney

Florence T. Shelton

Guy Shelton - United States

Mahlon, Jr - United States