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judge , Lawyer

History remembers Willis Van Devanter as one of the Four Horsemen, the quartet of conservative justices on the Supreme Court who consistently defied the New Deal program of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his Democratic Congress in the 1930s.


Willis Van Devanter was born in Marion, Indiana, on April 17, 1859, the first of eight children bom to Isaac Van Devanter and Violetta Spencer Van Devanter. Isaac was a lawyer who encouraged his eldest son to pursue the same calling.


After attending schools in Marion, Willis enrolled at Indiana Asbury University (later to become DcPauw University) but had to interrupt his studies after two years to earn a livelihood when his father became ill. Upon his father’s recovery, Willis Van Devanter was able to resume his academic career by enrolling in the University of Cincinnati Law School in 1879, from which he graduated second in his class in 1881. Two years later he married Delice Burhan, with whom he would have two sons.


After law school, Van Devanter joined his father’s law practice in the firm of Lacey and Van Devanter; but when Isaac Van Devanter retired in 1884, his partner John W. Lacey moved to Wyoming, where he accepted an appointment as chief justice of the Wyoming Territorial Supreme Court. Willis followed Lacey to Wyoming and set up his own practice in Cheyenne. Twenty-five years old at the time, the rough and tumble of frontier life suited Willis more than the settled possibilities available to him in Indiana. He was the kind of man who would one day hunt grizzly bears with Buffalo Bill in the Bighorn Mountains. For the time being, though, he spent his first few years in Cheyenne finding clients among ranchers and others who feuded over cattle and land rights. In 1887 he formed a partnership with the influential Republican lawyer Charles N. Potter, and the two men’s practice soon boasted a client list that included the Burlington Railroad.

Around the same time, Van Devanter threw himself into Republican politics, casting his lot in support of the territorial governor, Francis E. Warren, and winning election himself as Cheyenne city attorney in 1887 and to the Wyoming territorial legislature in 1888.

During these years he worked on a commission to revise and codify the territorial statutes of Wyoming. The climax of this early period was his appointment in 1889—at the age of 30— by President Benjamin Harrison as chief justice of the Wyoming Territorial Supreme Court. The appointment, which paid only S3,000 a year, enhanced Van Devanter’s reputation more than his bank account, and the young man returned to the more financially rewarding practice of law a year later, when Wyoming became a state. By this time John W. Lacey had also returned to the private practice of law, and the two men formed a new partnership whose core client was the Union Pacific Railroad. The newly formed state of Wyoming acknowledged the growing reputation of Van Devanter when it retained him to argue a case on its behalf before the U.S. Supreme Court. Ward v. Race Horse (1896) involved the question of whedier Wyoming’s statehood superseded an Indian treaty that was inconsistent with state law on the question of Indian hunting rights. Van Devanter prevailed for the state in his appeal to the Supreme Court.

Van Devanter’s efforts on behalf of the Republican party bore fruit once President William P. McKinley took office. McKinley appointed Van Devanter an assistant attorney general in the Department of the Interior in 1897, where Van Devanter’s knowledge of land law and his familiarity with Native American issues served him in good stead. This position was less than Van Devanter—who aspired to be solicitor general of the United States—might have hoped for, but it was followed in six years by a more prestigious appointment in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt nomi-nated Van Devanter to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Here, over the course of seven years, Van Devanter reinforced his already substantial expertise in legal issues relating to land claims and railroads. He also proved adept at resolving complicated issues relating to jurisdiction.

The judge from Wyoming secured his final and most prestigious advancement in public service when President William Howard Taft appointed him an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court on December 12, 1910. Confirmed by the Senate a few days later, Van Devanter took his seat on the Court on January 3, 1911, inaugurating what would eventually be a term of service that stretched for more titan a quarter of a century.

By the summer of 1937, President Roosevelt had signed into law bills that provided an attractive retirement package for justices over the age at 70 who had served at least 10 years on the Court. Justice Van Devanter promptly took advantage of this law and tendered his resignation from the Court on June 2, 1937, when he was 78 years old. He moved to New York and handled cases for the lower federal courts there.


Justice Van Devanter remained relatively unknown by the general public, finding a place for himself on the Court as its resident expert on questions relating to land and water rights, admiralty, jurisdictional disputes, and issues relating to Native Americans. His expertise concerning jurisdictional matters, in particular, was substantial, and resulted in his being appointed to the commission that drafted the Judiciary Act of 1925. For his length of service on the Court, however, Van Devanter wrote relatively few opinions: a mere 346 opinions for the Court over 26 years. But his fellow justices held him in higher esteem than this output might suggest. Especially in the private conferences in which the justices discussed their opinions about cases pending before the Court, Van Devanter played a significant role. William Howard Taft, who as president appointed Van Devanter to the Court and later joined the Court as its chief justice, declared that the justice from Wyoming was “far and away the most valuable man in our court.” Justice Louis Brandéis, far removed from Van Devanter in terms of political orientation, nevertheless declared him to be the “master of formulas that decided cases without creating precedents.”


In 1883 he married Delice Burhan, with whom he would have two sons.

Delice Burhan - United States