Justice Hugo Black

Justice Hugo Black joined the U.S. Supreme Court on August 19, 1937, replacing Justice Willis Van Devanter. Black was born on February 27, 1886 in Clay County, Alabama. He attended Ashland College in Alabama and studied at Birmingham Medical College for one year. Black graduated from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1906. He then started practicing law in Birmingham, Alabama and later became Jefferson County prosecutor. During the First World War, he served in the U.S. Army. Black was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s but resigned in 1925.

About a year later, Black was elected to the U.S. Senate. He would serve two terms in the Senate, a total of 12 years. This period spanned most of the Great Depression and the New Deal, which Black supported. This made him an attractive candidate when President Franklin Roosevelt had his first opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court Justice.

On August 12, 1937, Roosevelt nominated Black to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on August 17 in a 63-16 vote, and he took the judicial oath two days later. His tenure was the fifth-longest in Supreme Court history, spanning five Chief Justices. Black became known for his belief in total incorporation, which meant that the Fourteenth Amendment applied the entire Bill of Rights to the states. (The Court did not endorse this view, but over time it has nearly become reality.)

Black was generally considered a liberal Justice. For example, he voted in favor of Miranda rights and wrote for the Court in Gideon v. Wainwright, which found that the Sixth Amendment requires a state to appoint an attorney for a criminal defendant who cannot afford their own. He supported the one-person, one-vote principle, penning an opinion in Wesberry v. Sanders that required U.S. Congressional districts to be roughly equal in population. Black strongly endorsed the separation of church and state under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In the landmark case of Engel v. Vitale, he wrote for the Court in striking down school-sponsored prayer in public schools. Black also delivered the majority opinion in Everson v. Board of Education, which extended the Establishment Clause to the states.

However, Black did not always take liberal positions. One major blemish on his record was Korematsu v. U.S., in which he wrote for the Court to uphold Japanese-American internment camps during the Second World War. He also dissented from Griswold v. Connecticut, in which the Court found an implied constitutional right to privacy. In the area of free speech, he dissented from a handful of decisions finding that the Constitution protected various forms of expressive conduct. He also dissented from a key Fourth Amendment decision in Katz v. U.S. that expanded protections against searches and seizures.

Black retired from the Supreme Court on September 17, 1971 and died just eight days later in Bethesda, Maryland near Washington, D.C. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Justice Lewis Powell replaced him on the Court.

Selected Opinions by Justice Black:

Afroyim v. Rusk (1967)

Topic: Immigration & National Security

Congress has no power under the Constitution to divest a person of their U.S. citizenship, absent their voluntary renunciation of it. (This decision overruled Perez.)

Pointer v. Texas (1965)

Topic: Criminal Trials & Prosecutions

The right granted to a defendant by the Sixth Amendment to confront the witnesses against them, which includes the right of cross-examination, is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial and is made obligatory on the states by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Stiffel Co. (1964)

Topic: Patents

When design and mechanical patents are invalid for want of invention, a state unfair competition law cannot be used to get an injunction against copying the product or an award of damages for such copying.

Wesberry v. Sanders (1964)

Topic: Voting & Elections

The constitutional requirement that representatives be chosen “by the people of the several states” means that, as nearly as is practicable, one person's vote in a congressional election must be worth as much as another person's vote.

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

Topic: Criminal Trials & Prosecutions

The right of an indigent defendant in a criminal trial to have the assistance of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial.

Engel v. Vitale (1962)

Topic: Religion

State officials may not compose an official state prayer and require that it be recited in public schools, even if the prayer is denominationally neutral, and even if students may remain silent or be excused.

Torcaso v. Watkins (1961)

Topic: Religion

A religious test for public office unconstitutionally invaded freedom of belief and religion.

Beacon Theatres, Inc. v. Westover (1959)

Topic: Lawsuits & Legal Procedures

Only under the most imperative circumstances can the right to a jury trial of legal issues be lost through prior determination of equitable claims.

Klor's, Inc. v. Broadway-Hale Stores, Inc. (1959)

Topic: Antitrust

A group boycott is not to be tolerated merely because the victim is only one merchant, whose business is so small that their destruction makes little difference to the economy.

Cooper v. Aaron (1958)

Topic: Role of Courts; Equal Protection

State officials have a duty to obey federal court orders resting on the Supreme Court's considered interpretation of the Constitution. Also, state support of segregated schools through any arrangement, management, funds, or property cannot be squared with the Equal Protection Clause.

Conley v. Gibson (1957)

Topic: Lawsuits & Legal Procedures

A complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of their claim that would entitle them to relief.

Reid v. Covert (1956)

Topic: Role of Courts

Courts of law alone are given power to try civilians for their offenses against the United States.

Arrowsmith v. Commissioner (1952)

Topic: Taxes

When a later transaction is sufficiently related to an earlier transaction, the later transaction will be treated as having the same character as the earlier transaction for tax purposes.

U.S. v. Lewis (1951)

Topic: Taxes

When a taxpayer reported an amount received as an employee bonus, and he claimed it in good faith and used it unconditionally as his own, but he was required to return half of the amount to his employer after it was decided that the bonus had been computed improperly, the claim of right doctrine meant that the entire amount was income in the year when it was received, and the taxpayer was not entitled to recompute his tax for that year.

Williams v. New York (1949)

Topic: Death Penalty & Criminal Sentencing

In considering the sentence to be imposed after a conviction, the sentencing judge is not restricted to information received in open court. This is true even when a death sentence is imposed.

McCollum v. Board of Education (1948)

Topic: Religion

The utilization of a state's tax supported public school system and its machinery for compulsory public school attendance to enable sectarian groups to give religious instruction to public school pupils in public school buildings violated the First Amendment.

Everson v. Board of Education (1947)

Topic: Religion

The First Amendment does not prohibit a state from spending tax-raised funds to pay the bus fares of parochial school pupils as a part of a general program under which it pays the fares of pupils attending public and other schools.

Marsh v. Alabama (1946)

Topic: Property Rights & Land Use

A state cannot impose criminal penalties for distributing religious literature on the sidewalk of a company-owned town contrary to regulations of the town management, when the town and its shopping district are accessible to the general public.

Korematsu v. U.S. (1944)

Topic: Equal Protection; Immigration & National Security

All legal restrictions that curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect and must be subjected to the most rigid scrutiny. However, pressing public necessity may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions.

Fashion Originators' Guild of America v. FTC (1941)

Topic: Antitrust

A practice short of a complete monopoly that tends to create a monopoly and deprive the public of the advantages from free competition in interstate trade offends the policy of the Sherman Act.

Johnson v. Zerbst (1938)

Topic: Criminal Trials & Prosecutions

The right to assistance of counsel may be waived, but the waiver must be intelligent. Whether there was a waiver must depend on the particular facts and circumstances, including the background, experience, and conduct of the accused.