September 14, 2007

Hughes Court Laid the Groundwork for Civil Rights Gains, Says Ross Book

". . .The Court rendered important decisions striking against racial discrimination in voting, jury service, education and public transportation. . ."

William G. Ross's book on the Depression-ers Supreme CourtThe civil rights gains of the1940s and ‘50s had roots in U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the 1930s, according to a new study of Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who led the Court during 1930-1941.

Although the Hughes Court rendered no landmark decisions altering the second-class citizenship of African Americans, “more than a few of its rulings significantly eroded legal barriers that perpetuated racial injustice,” Samford University law professor William G. Ross wrote in his new book, The Chief Justiceship of Charles Evans Hughes 1930-1941.

The book also addresses many other issues faced by the Hughes Court, including its decisions on New Deal legislation, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Court-packing controversy and landmark decisions on free speech, free press and the rights of defendants.

Professor Ross, who teaches in Samford’s Cumberland School of Law, details the Supreme Court’s abandonment of its longtime function as an arbiter of economic regulatory legislation and the emergence of its modern role as a guardian of personal liberties. The book—Ross’ third on 20th century American constitutional history—was published recently by the University of South Carolina Press as part of its series on U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justices.

Tapping into a broad array of primary and secondary sources, Ross explores the complex interaction between the Court and the political, economic and cultural forces that transformed the nation during the Great Depression.

In looking at the Hughes Court’s impact on racial matters, Ross said later civil rights gains were grounded in the Court’s “evolutionary decisions” of the 1930s.

“By imposing stricter standards of due process on criminals trials, the Hughes Court helped to ameliorate the use of criminal law to perpetuate the socioeconomic suppression of blacks who were disproportionately the victims of terror tactics and slipshod procedures in criminal proceedings,” Ross wrote.

“The Hughes Court also helped to empower blacks by eliminating at least some of the ruses by which southern Democratic primaries deprived blacks of their right to vote,” he said.

The Court rendered important decisions striking against racial discrimination in voting, jury service, education and public transportation, but its criminal justice decisions “perhaps had the most racial impact,” said Ross.

“The most dramatic of the Hughes Court’s criminal justice decisions was Powell v. Alabama,” he said, because it required meaningful assistance of counsel in capital cases. The case involved a group of young black drifters, who became known as the “Scottsboro Boys,” accused of raping two white women hoboes on a freight train near Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931. In reversing the conviction of seven of the defendants, the Court found that the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause required states to provide competent attorneys at no cost to criminal defendants who faced the death penalty.

The Hughes Court criminal procedures decisions helped undermine the doctrine of “separate but equal” by showing that black defendants’ treatment was far more harsh than that of white defendants and that the treatment of blacks was “both separate and unequal,” Ross wrote, quoting a Minnesota Law Review article by Leon Higginbotham and William Smith.

In other parts of the book, Ross traces the Court’s about-face in dealing with Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. During FDR’s first term, the Court—with a majority of conservative judges appointed by Republican presidents—invalidated eight federal economic regulatory statutes aimed at relieving the Depression during a 17-month period of 1935-1936. This led to Roosevelt’s 1937 attempt to enlarge the Court by naming one new appointee to the Court for every member 70 ½ years of age, but this plan failed.

However, a “profound shift in the Court’s direction” occurred during the late 1930s, Ross noted, as Roosevelt began filling normal Court vacancies with more liberal justices such as Alabama’s Hugo Black. By the time Hughes resigned at age 79 in 1941, Roosevelt had appointed every justice but two, more than any president except George Washington.

“Although many justices have disappointed the presidents who have appointed them, every justice appointed by Roosevelt was deferential toward economic recovery legislation and protective of personal liberties,” Ross wrote.

During its early years, Ross noted, the Hughes Court handed down several landmark 5-4 decisions expanding free speech, freedom of the press and the rights of defendants in which Hughes cast the deciding vote. This showed that he could be “just the sort of Justice that his opponents insisted he never could be,” Ross observed.

Hughes retired in 1941 after a distinguished career in public service. A native of Glens Falls, N.Y., he was elected governor of his home state in 1906. President William Howard Taft appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1910, but he resigned in 1916 to run for president, losing by 23 electoral votes (277-254) to Woodrow Wilson. A shift of a few thousand votes in California, one of the last states to report totals, would have given Hughes the election.

Hughes served as Secretary of State from 1921 until 1925, and was appointed Chief Justice by President Herbert Hoover in 1930. He died at the age of 86 in 1948.

To order The Chief Justiceship of Charles Evans Hughes 1930-1941, go to or call toll-free 800-768-2500. Cost of the book is $49.95 plus shipping.

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Professor William G. Ross

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