Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Hugo LaFayette Black (February 27, 1886 - September 25, 1971) was a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1937 - 1971). He is noted for his advocacy of a "literal" reading of the United States Constitution, and for his attempt in 1949 to make the U.S. Bill of Rights applicable to the various states. His jurisprudence has been the focus of much discussion. Because of his insistence on a strict textual analysis of Constitutional issues, as opposed to the process-oriented jurisprudence of many of his colleagues, it is difficult to characterize Hugo Black as a "liberal" or a "conservative" as those terms are generally understood.
Hugo LaFayette Black was born in Harlan, Alabama , a rural town in Clay County. After a brief stint in medical school, Black earned his law degree from the University of Alabama in 1906. While practicing law, he was noted for his success in workers' compensation cases.
Since in 1920s Alabama the Ku Klux Klan was such a politically active force, Black, as insurance for his upcoming senate race, joined the organization and was an active member for two years, but allegedly avoided involvement in the violence sponsored by the group. Black did, however, use his legal skills to assist Klan members who committed violence. In the most notorious case, Black successfully defended Klansman E.R. Stephenson for the 1921 murder of Father James Coyle, a Catholic priest who had performed a marriage between Stephenson's daughter and a Puerto Rican man. The presiding judge and several members of the courtroom staff were also active Klan members and ensured that several of their own were selected to the jury. Black is reported to have communicated with the Klansmen on the jury through the organization's hand signals, securing an acquital for Stephenson. The conferral of a "lifetime membership" on Black by the group would become a focus of intense controversy.
Black won a seat in the Senate in 1926 and remained for eleven years. While there, he was a staunch supporter of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, and an advocate for Roosevelt's "Court-Packing" scheme of 1937. In 1934 he headed a committee to investigate the Air Mail Scandal and drafted what became the Air Mail Act of 1934.
US Supreme Court Justice
Black was nominated by Roosevelt to the Supreme Court in 1937 to replace Justice Willis Van Devanter . His nomination met controversy due to knowledge of his Klan connections, as the Ku Klux Klan had become widely reviled. He was confirmed by the Senate and was sworn in on August 19, 1937. During the summer after Black's confirmation, even more information surfaced about Black's Klan connections due to an investigative report by a journalist, and public opinion turned strongly against Black. Black was forced to deliver a radio address in which he disavowed the Klan and claimed he was not racist, anti-semitic, or anti-Catholic.
Black quickly made a splash on the Court by filing dissenting opinions. His opinion for the Court, ruling in favor of four African-Americans who had been coerced by police into murder confessions, in Chambers v. Florida, 309 US 227 (1940), made clear that his previous connections with the Klan were not to have an effect on his performance in the Court. His opposition to state-sponsored racial discrimination was confirmed by his opinion in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which invalidated a racial restriction on the sale of land, and he joined the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
Bill of Rights
Beginning in 1949 Hugo Black began to insist that the United States Bill of Rights had been made applicable to the States as well as the federal government. In 1947 with Adamson v. California, Hugo Black revealed in what amounts to a small book of dissenting opinion, his theories of incorporation.
Hugo Black was an active and enthusiastic supporter of the Court's expansion of the rights of criminal defendants during the tenure of Earl Warren, at times leading the charge, as with his majority opinion in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), which guaranteed the right of all defendants to be represented by an attorney in criminal trials.
During the anti-Communist McCarthy era of the 1950s, Black became known as a defender of First Amendment rights, perhaps most notably in his dissent in Dennis v. United States, 341 US 494 (1951), and would continue in this throughout the rest of his career on the Court. He took a dim view of government entanglement with religious practice, and wrote the Court's ground-breaking opinion on school prayer in the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitale.
Hugo Black was noted for his consistent adherence to the theory that the text of the Constitution is absolutely determinative on any question calling for judicial interpretation. Thus, he refused to join in the efforts of the justices on the Court who sought to abolish capital punishment in the United States, which efforts succeeded (temporarily) in the term immediately following Black's death. He also was not persuaded that a right of privacy was implicit in the Ninth Amendment, and dissented from the Court's 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision which invalidated a conviction for the sale of banned contraceptives.
He dissented from the Court's decision in Cohen v. California (1971), which held that a person could not be punished for wearing a jacket emblazoned with the words "Fuck the Draft." And although Black maintained his commitment to racial equality throughout his tenure on the Court, he voted to uphold the constitutionality of state-imposed poll taxes which, though nominally race-neutral, had a disparate impact on African-American voters. The key to Black's position in all of these cases was that there was no specific constitutional provision which restrained the governmental actions complained of.
Resignation and death
Hugo Black resigned from the Court on September 17, 1971. President Nixon appointed Lewis F. Powell to his seat. He died eight days after resigning. Hugo Black is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
"When permitted to listen to alternative opinions and engage in substantive debate, people have been known to change their minds. It can happen. For example, Hugo Black, in his youth, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan; he later became a Supreme Court justice and was one of the leaders in the historic Supreme Court decisions, partly based on the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, that affirmed the civil rights of all Americans: It was said that when he was a young man he dressed up in white robes and scared black folks; when he got older, he dressed up in black robes and scared white folks."
|- style="text-align: center;"
| width="30%" |Preceded by:
Willis Van Devanter | width="40%" style="text-align: center;" |Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
August 19, 1937 – September 17, 1971 | width="30%" |Succeeded by:
Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
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