Willis Van Devanter served as an associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States. While arguably not as famous as some of his modern day counterparts, he still holds importance in American history for his role in establishing the Supreme Court as the highest authority in the land and arguing to what extent the federal government has jurisdiction in lower circuit appellate courts.
He was born in 1859 in Marion, Indiana, the son of a practicing attorney who influenced Van Devanter’s own decision to study law. He attended and graduated from the Cincinnati Law School in 1881 before immediately joining his father’s law firm. He remained with his father’s firm for only a few years before moving to Wyoming, which at the time was still a U.S. territory.
In Wyoming, Van Devanter established his own law practice and gained prominence by assisting in the revision and establishment of territorial statutes. He served as the attorney for the city of Cheyenne and also was elected to the territory’s legislature.
It was during his tenure as a territorial legislator that he gained the attention of President Benjamin Harrison, who appointed Van Devanter to the territory’s supreme court. Van Devanter was 30 years old at this time.
He remained as a territorial supreme court justice until 1890, when he returned to private law practice. His secondary stint as a private lawyer in Wyoming was short-lived, as President William McKinley quickly appointed him to the U.S. Department of Interior.
He remained with the Interior Department until 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him to the Eighth Circuit of Appeals Court. In 1910, President William Howard Taft nominated him as a justice to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and officially began his tenure in 1911.
Van Devanter remained a Supreme Court justice until his retirement in 1937. He died in Washington, D.C. in 1941 at the age of 81.
Supreme Court Career
By all accounts, Van Devanter was regarded as a diplomatic yet somewhat disagreeable justice who was prone to racist and bigoted behaviors toward Native Americans and Jewish people. He largely kept his personal opinions about both groups to himself. However, he did write an opinion in 1913, one of his first as a Supreme Court justice, in which he stated that the Pueblo tribe in New Mexico was morally and intellectually inferior.
For the most part, Van Devanter’s opinions were sought for cases regarding matters such as the use of public lands, water rights, admirality, federal court jurisdiction and corporate law. Many of his peers as well as people outside of the court regarded him as an expert on judicial processes and relied on him to argue to what extent the federal courts should have jurisdiction or influence over lower courts.
His opinion regarding judicial processes and jurisdiction was so highly prized that President Taft drafted him along with two other justices to draft a piece of legislation that would become known as the Judge’s Bill. The Judge’s Bill argued in part that higher federal courts should have precedence over the rulings of lower courts. If a lower court ruled one way over case, the higher appellate courts as well as the Supreme Court of the United States should have the authority and right to overturn that judgment if constitutionally appropriate.
Van Devanter and the two other justices, James Clark McReynolds and George Sutherlands, successfully argued this bill before the U.S. Congress. Congress passed the Judge’s Bill into law in 1925, two years after it was first presented.
Interestingly, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Sutherlands and their fellow justice Pierce Butler joined forces to oppose President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. The four justices were quickly labeled by the American media as “The Four Horsemen” for their passionate conservatism and determination to override Roosevelt’s attempt to enact the New Deal.
They were so determined to eliminate the New Deal that the four would ride to and from work together to correlate arguments and opinions. Their opposition to Roosevelt’s legislation infuriated the president, however, and convinced him to pack the courts with justices who would agree with and further his New Deal legislation.
Van Devanter decided to retire from the Supreme Court in 1937 just as Roosevelt began packing the courts with like-minded judges. It was also around this time that Congress passed legislation that would pay justices over the age of 70 their full salaries after they retired.
The ability to collect his full pay convinced Van Devanter that the time was right to retire. In fact, he stated that he would have retired five years earlier but needed his income on which to live. His health was in decline by that time, and he decided to remain in Washington, D.C. rather than move back to Indiana or Wyoming. During his retirement, he spent some time on the property that he and his wife purchased in Ontario, Canada. They sold the property in 1939.
Van Devanter died at the age of 81 in 1941. He was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in what became his family’s plot. The plot itself is marked by a simple headstone with the family’s surname engraved on it. His individual grave is marked by a headstone with his name and dates of birth and death.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Dolly, and survived by his two sons, Isaac and Winslow, and three grandchildren. Van Devanter’s legislative and judicial papers and opinions likewise survive him. They remain archived in the U.S. Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Willis Van Devanter is remembered for his opinions that established the supremacy of higher federal courts as well as the U.S. Supreme Court. He earned a reputation as a legal expert early in his career and enjoyed professional successes far sooner than many of his legislative or judicial counterparts. He also is well remembered for authoring the Judge’s Bill as well as his fierce opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.