Pierce Butler was an American jurist who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1923 until his death in 1939. He is notable for being the first Justice from Minnesota, and for being a Democrat appointed by a Republican president, Warren G. Harding.
Pierce Butler was born in a log cabin on March 17, 1866, in Pine Bend, Minnesota. His parents, Patrick Butler and Mary Gaffney Butler, were devout Roman Catholics who had immigrated to the United States from Ireland after the potato famine of 1848. Their son Pierce, the sixth of eight children, was born on St. Patrick’s Day. Pierce’s father—though at first a tavern keeper in Illinois and later a farmer in Minnesota—was an educated man who had studied at Trinity College in Dublin and had traveled widely. He and his wife, Mary, communicated to their son Pierce the value of work and a devotion to the Catholic faith, traits that would help define the future justice over the course of his life.
While helping to work on the farm, Pierce Butler received his early education from a local school, supplemented by instruction from his parents. In 1881 he enrolled in a college preparatory program connected with Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. After two years, he entered Carleton College itself, working part-time at a nearby dairy to support his education. In college, Butler developed the basic intellectual underpinnings for the conservative political and economic views that he would bring to the Supreme Court nearly 40 years later, though not always with accompanying academic success.
Butler practiced law briefly with Stan Donnelly before working as an assistant county attorney for Ramsey County beginning in 1891. In 1892 he won election to the office of Ramsey county attorney, serving in the position for four years from 1893 through 1897. During the same period he became a partner in the firm of How, Butler, and Mitchell, where he became prominent as a railroad lawyer and an attorney for public utilities over the next 30 years. He forged expertise in the area of litigation valuing railroad and utility property, and was repeatedly successful at securing higher valuations for these properties and thus allowing his clients to charge higher rates. Butler displayed special talent as a trial lawyer and was famed for his vigorous cross-examinations of opposing witnesses. He was a man said by one contemporary to be “easy to meet, but dangerous to oppose.” In 1908 Butler’s reputation among his peers led to his election as president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. In 1906 Butler had narrowly lost election to the Minnesota state senate on the Democratic ticket; this political bid would be his last attempt to win an elected office. But three years later his adversarial skills came to the attention of George W. Wickersham, attorney general under President William Howard Taft. Wickersham persuaded the Minnesota lawyer to prosecute claims based on the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, on behalf of the federal government against certain companies. The gifted Butler secured favorable verdicts at the trial level, but these were later reversed on appeal.
On November 23, 1922, ten days after the resignation of Associate Justice William Rufus Day, President Warren G. Harding appointed Pierce Butler to fill the vacant seat. Harding’s decision to reach across party lines to nominate the Democratic Butler prompted substantial controversy. Butler’s conservatism attracted the support of some influential Republicans, including Chief Justice William Howard Taft; and Associate Justice Willis Van Devanter. Moreover, Butler’s Catholicism was a point in his favor, since Taft himself had replaced Chief Justice Edward White, a Catholic, and many observers believed another Catholic appointment was in order, although the Ku Klux Klan opposed his nomination precisely because of his Catholic background. But substantial liberal opponents to Butler’s nomination, including George Norris and Robert La Follette, soon emerged in the Senate. They argued, predictably, that Butler’s three decade career of legal efforts on behalf of railroad companies would make him biased toward their interests on the Court. They also challenged him on civil libertarian grounds, on the basis of his conduct as a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota, a position he held from 1907 to 1924. There was evidence that Butler had used this position to force the dismissal of several members of the faculty at the university whose views he disfavored. These and other criticisms of Butler managed to stall his confirmation until the end of the specially called congressional session, upon which President Harding renominated Butler. The Senate eventually confirmed his appointment by a vote of 61-8 on December 21,1922. Butler took his seat on the Court at the beginning of the new year, inaugurating what would ultimately be a 17-year tenure of service on the high Court.
By the end of the tumultuous decade of the 1930s, illness began to trouble Justice Butler. He could not join the Court as it began its 1939 session. Within a month of the October term’s beginning, he died of a bladder illness on November 16, 1939, in Washington, D.C. He was 73 years old at the time.
In general, Pierce Butler proved to be one of the most reactionary of the Court’s conservatives, so resolute in his positions that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes described him as a “monolith,” having “no seams the frost can get through.” Holmes concluded, “He is of one piece.” Butler consistently adopted a narrow reading of First Amendment freedoms, especially when exercised in furtherance of “unpatriotic” causes. Thus, he joined Justice McReynolds in dissent from the Court’s ruling in Stromberg v. California (1931), which overturned a woman’s conviction for displaying a red flag, and announced the opinion for the Court in United States v. Schwimmer (1929), rejecting the naturalization petition of a woman with religiously- rooted conscientious objections to military service. His willingness to use the Fourteenth Amendment to eliminate officially sanctioned racial discrimination was equally stunted. Together with McReynolds again, he dissented from the Court’s decision in the Scottsboro case, Powell v. Alabama (1932), which reversed the conviction of seven young black men accused of capital rape but denied adequate representation by counsel, and in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), in which a majority of the Court declared unconstitutional Missouri’s refusal to allow a black student to attend the state’s public law school.
In the area of economic regulation, Pierce proved to be implacably conservative, earning designation as one of the Four Horsemen, the quartet of justices—including McReynolds, Van Devanter, and Sutherland—who opposed New Deal programs. For a time, the Four Horsemen, sometimes joined by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and by Associate Justice Owen Roberts, dealt critical blows to a variety of New Deal programs by declaring them unconstitutional. Eventually though, President Roosevelt threatened to pack the Court with justices more hospitable to his legislative agenda, and Chief Justice Hughes and Associate Justice Roberts parted company with the Four Horsemen in 1937. Thereafter, the Four Horsemen found themselves consistently in the minority position.
One evening at a dinner at John Twohy’s home, Buder met Annie M. Cronin, a half sister of Twohy’s wife, and Pierce and Annie were married in 1891. This union would eventually produce eight children.