Charles Evans Hughes Court (1930-1941)

Charles Evans Hughes was the 11th Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, succeeding William Howard Taft. Hughes previously served as an Associate Justice from 1910-1916. After 14 years away from the Court, he was nominated as Chief Justice on February 3, 1930 by President Herbert Hoover. The Senate confirmed Hughes on February 13, 1930, and he was sworn into office on February 24, 1930. He served as Chief Justice until he retired on June 30, 1941 and was succeeded by Harlan Fiske Stone, one of the Associate Justices on his Court.

A few weeks after Hughes was confirmed, Justice Edward Terry Sanford died in office. He was soon replaced by Justice Owen Josephus Roberts. The membership of the Hughes Court then stayed relatively stable for several years. The only change between 1931 and 1936 occurred when Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo replaced Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in 1932.

However, the period between 1937 and 1941 saw numerous changes to the Court as President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed six new Justices. Justice Hugo Black succeeded the retiring Justice Willis Van Devanter in 1937, and Justice Stanley Reed succeeded the retiring Justice George Sutherland a year later. Cardozo died in late 1938 and was replaced by Justice Felix Frankfurter in early 1939. Justice William Douglas joined the Court three months after Frankfurter, replacing the retiring Justice Louis Brandeis. Justice Pierce Butler died in late 1939 and was replaced in early 1940 by Justice Frank Murphy. A year later, Justice James Clark McReynolds retired and was replaced by Justice James Byrnes. While Byrnes was confirmed before Hughes resigned, he was not sworn into office until afterward.

The Hughes Court spanned most of the Great Depression, a time of turmoil and change. A group of conservative Justices fiercely opposed the New Deal measures devised by Roosevelt, who grew frustrated as the Court struck down law after law during his first term. After he was reelected in 1936, Roosevelt sought to solve this problem with a plan to expand the Court. In the spring of 1937, though, a pair of notable decisions signaled a shift in favor of the New Deal and similar economic regulations. The “court packing” plan stalled that summer, and no President has seriously pursued the idea since then. Meanwhile, each of the hardcore conservatives on the Court departed in defeat over the next few years.

The Supreme Court Building was constructed under the Hughes Court, although Chief Justice Taft previously obtained authorization from Congress. The project began in 1932 and was completed in 1935. Before then, the Supreme Court had convened in various chambers of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Associate Justices on the Hughes Court:

  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1902-1932)
  • Willis Van Devanter (1911-1937)
  • James Clark McReynolds (1914-1941)
  • Louis Brandeis (1916-1939)
  • George Sutherland (1922-1938)
  • Edward Terry Sanford (1923-1930)
  • Pierce Butler (1923-1939)
  • Harlan Fiske Stone (1925-1946)
  • Owen Josephus Roberts (1930-1945)
  • Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (1932-1938)
  • Hugo Black (1937-1971)
  • Stanley Reed (1938-1957)
  • Felix Frankfurter (1939-1962)
  • William Douglas (1939-1975)
  • Frank Murphy (1940-1949)

Selected Landmark Cases of the Hughes Court:

U.S. v. Darby (1941)

Author: Harlan Fiske Stone

Topic: Powers of Congress

While manufacture is not interstate commerce, the shipment of manufactured goods interstate is interstate commerce, and the prohibition of such shipment by Congress is a regulation of interstate commerce.

Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940)

Author: Owen Josephus Roberts

Topic: Free Speech

When a clear and present danger of riot, disorder, interference with traffic on the public streets, or other immediate threat to public safety, peace, or order appears, the power of the state to prevent or punish is obvious.

Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940)

Author: Felix Frankfurter

Topic: Religion

A regulation requiring that pupils in public schools salute the flag and recite the pledge of allegiance was constitutional as applied to children entertaining a conscientious religious belief that such obeisance to the flag is forbidden by the Bible. (This decision was overruled by West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.)

NLRB v. Fansteel Metallurgical Corp. (1939)

Author: Charles Evans Hughes

Topic: Labor & Employment

In recognizing the right to strike, the National Labor Relations Act contemplates a lawful strike. When a strike, even if it arose from unfair labor practices, is initiated and conducted in lawlessness by the seizure and retention of the employer's property, and the strikers are discharged because of their lawlessness, they do not remain employees under the NLRA.

Johnson v. Zerbst (1938)

Author: Hugo Black

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.

U.S. v. Carolene Products Co. (1938)

Author: Harlan Fiske Stone

Topic: Due Process; Equal Protection

Regulatory legislation affecting ordinary commercial transactions is not unconstitutional unless it is of such a character as to preclude the assumption that the law rests on a rational basis within the knowledge and experience of the legislature. (Footnote 4 laid the foundation for heightened scrutiny in certain situations involving fundamental rights, the political process, and racial, national, or religious minorities.)

Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938)

Author: Charles Evans Hughes

Topic: Equal Protection

If a state furnishes higher education to white residents, it is bound to furnish substantially equal advantages to African-American residents, although not necessarily in the same schools.

West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (1937)

Author: Charles Evans Hughes

Topic: Due Process; Labor & Employment

A restraint or regulation of the liberty to contract is due process if it is reasonable in relation to its subject and adopted for the protection of the community against evils menacing the health, safety, morals, and welfare of the people. Also, in dealing with the relation of employer and employed, the legislature has a wide field of discretion in order that there may be suitable protection of health and safety, and that peace and good order may be promoted through regulations designed to ensure wholesome conditions of work and freedom from oppression.

NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. (1937)

Author: Charles Evans Hughes

Topic: Powers of Congress

Although activities may be intrastate in character when separately considered, if they have such a close and substantial relation to interstate commerce that their control is essential or appropriate to protect that commerce from burdens and obstructions, Congress has the power to exercise that control.

U.S. v. Butler (1936)

Author: Owen Josephus Roberts

Topic: Powers of Congress

The power to tax and spend is a separate and distinct power. Its exercise is not confined to the fields committed to Congress by the other enumerated grants of power, but it is limited by the requirement that it shall be exercised to provide for the general welfare of the United States.

U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. (1936)

Author: George Sutherland

Topic: Separation of Powers; Immigration & National Security

Congressional legislation that is to be made effective through negotiation and inquiry within the international field must often accord to the President a degree of discretion and freedom from statutory restriction that would not be admissible were domestic affairs alone involved.

Humphrey's Executor v. U.S. (1935)

Author: George Sutherland

Topic: Separation of Powers; Government Agencies

The authority of Congress in creating quasi-legislative or quasi-judicial agencies to require their officers to act independently of executive control includes the power to fix the period during which they shall continue in office, and to forbid their removal except for cause in the meantime. (However, purely executive officers are inherently subject to the exclusive and illimitable power of removal by the President.)

A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. U.S. (1935)

Author: Charles Evans Hughes

Topic: Separation of Powers; Government Agencies

Congress is not permitted by the Constitution to abdicate, or to transfer to others, the essential legislative functions with which it is vested. Congress may leave to selected instrumentalities the making of subordinate rules within prescribed limits, and the determination of facts to which the policy declared by Congress applies, but it must lay down the policies and establish standards. A law was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power when it did not undertake to prescribe rules of conduct to be applied to particular states of fact determined by appropriate administrative procedure but instead authorized the making of codes to prescribe them and set up no standards for that legislative undertaking.

Panama Refining Co. v. Ryan (1935)

Author: Charles Evans Hughes

Topic: Separation of Powers; Government Agencies

Congress may leave to selected instrumentalities the making of subordinate rules within prescribed limits and the determination of facts to which the policy as declared by the legislature is to apply. However, this should not obscure the limitations of the authority to delegate if the constitutional system is to be maintained. An attempted delegation is plainly void when the power sought to be delegated is legislative power, yet nowhere in the statute has Congress declared or indicated any policy or standard to guide or limit the President when acting under such delegation.

Nebbia v. New York (1934)

Author: Owen Josephus Roberts

Topic: Due Process

The Due Process Clause conditions the exertion of regulatory power by requiring that the end shall be accomplished by methods consistent with due process, that the regulation shall not be unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious, and that the means selected shall have a real and substantial relation to the object sought to be attained.

Powell v. Alabama (1932)

Author: George Sutherland

Topic: Due Process; Criminal Trials & Prosecutions

The right of the accused, at least in a capital case, to have the aid of counsel for their defense is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This includes the right to have sufficient time to advise with counsel and prepare a defense.

Near v. Minnesota (1931)

Author: Charles Evans Hughes

Topic: Free Speech

In determining the extent of the constitutional protection for the freedom of the press, it has been generally considered that it is the chief purpose of the guaranty to prevent previous restraints upon publication.