Justice Pierce Butler

Justice Pierce Butler joined the U.S. Supreme Court on January 2, 1923, replacing Justice William Rufus Day. Butler was born on March 17, 1866 in Northfield, a town in Minnesota south of Minneapolis. In 1887, he graduated from Carleton College in his hometown, and he was admitted to the Minnesota bar a year later.

Butler served as county attorney in Ramsey County, Minnesota (where St. Paul is located) during the mid-1890s. He then entered private practice, often handling matters related to railroads. In 1908, Butler became the President of the Minnesota State Bar Association. He also served as a Regent of the University of Minnesota from 1907 to 1924.

On December 5, 1922, President Warren Harding nominated Butler to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on December 21 in a 61-8 vote, and he took the judicial oath shortly after the new year began. Butler would spend nearly 17 years on the Court.

A Democrat but also a Catholic, Butler became a member of a conservative bloc on the Court known as the Four Horsemen, joining Justices James Clark McReynolds, George Sutherland, and Willis Van Devanter. This group repeatedly struck down New Deal legislation and other economic regulations on constitutional grounds. Toward the end of his tenure, the Court repudiated their approach, leaving Butler on the wrong side of history in this area.

However, Butler landed on the right side of history in two other areas. He disagreed with all of his fellow Justices in the notorious 1927 case of Buck v. Bell, which found that the Constitution permitted the compulsory sterilization of people in state institutions who had hereditary insanity or imbecility. Although this decision has not been explicitly overturned, it has been essentially abandoned. Butler also dissented in Olmstead v. U.S., a case involving the use of evidence from wiretapped phone conversations in a federal prosecution. In the 1967 case of Katz v. U.S., the Earl Warren Court would agree with Butler’s dissenting view that this violated the Fourth Amendment.

Butler died on November 16, 1939 in Washington, D.C. and was replaced on the Court by Justice Frank Murphy. His remains were returned to St. Paul for burial.

Selected Opinions by Justice Butler:

Hess v. Pawloski (1927)

Topic: Lawsuits & Legal Procedures

Due process does not prevent a state from declaring that the use of its highways by a non-resident motorist shall be deemed equivalent to an appointment by the motorist of the registrar as their attorney, upon whom process may be served in any action arising out of an accident in which the non-resident was involved.