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1981 Y.B. 37 (1981)
The Era of Melville Weston Fuller

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The Era of Melville Weston Fuller

                         Jeffrey B. Morrist


  During  the twenty-two  years that Melville
Weston  Fuller was presiding over the Supreme
Court, the United States experienced a wave of
social tension, followed by a period of reform.
Possessed by  a spirit of jingoism, the United
States acquired a small empire, and involved
itself in great power politics to a greater degree
than ever before. These were pivotal years as
America, already the world's greatest economic
power, moved from slower, rural times to a more
urbanized and recognizably modem  nation.
  While the results of some of the great cases to
come  before the Fuller Court seem unfortunate
to today's observers, judged by the standards of
its own time, the Court picked its way through an
extraordinarily heavy docket of difficult issues.
Its decisions were generally in tune with both the
nation and consistent with its great tradition of
independence. By  the end of the era, the Court
had greatly enhanced its power and that of other
courts as overseers of the nation's economy.
While  the personnel of  the Court numbered
fewer  superstars than in other times, they
nonetheless worked together harmoniously, and
had at the helm, a genuine leader of men.

                THE JUSTICES
   History has not been kind so far to the Justices
who  served while Fuller was Chief Justice. For
decades the prevailing view of scholars has been
that the Justices were mediocre' and their juris-
prudence  sterile.2 One distinguished observer
wrote of the Fuller Court that it was
  a body dominated by fear-the fear of populists,
  of socialists, and communists, of numbers,
  majorities and democracy.3
In retrospect, the Court seems to have chosen the
wrong  direction in such significant areas of the
law as government  regulation of the economy,


the rights of labor, and racial equality. But, even
if this is so (and the most significant recent
scholarship offers a somewhat different interpre-
tation4), this was a Court of hardworking and
honorable men,  who mastered a huge caseload
whose character was transformed from that of a
predominantly common  law docket to one domi-
nated by questions of public law.
  Nineteen Associate Justices served with Chief
Justice Fuller. Eight of these were holdovers
from  the time of Chief  Justice Morrison R.
Waite. The impact of five of these on the Fuller
era came  primarily from their previous deci-
sions, for they died within half a decade: Stanley
Matthews  (1881-89), Samuel E Miller (1862-90),
Joseph  P. Bradley (1870-92), Lucius Quintus
Cincinnatus  Lamar   (1888-93), and  Samuel
Blatchford (1882-93). Matthews  was  ill when
Fuller took his oath and the two never sat to-
gether. Miller and Bradley were two of the most
able figures ever to sit on the Court. Lamar's
historic importance comes from his career in the
Congress  where  he  symbolized  North-South
reconciliation. Blatchford was the workhorse,
who  could be called upon to pen annually a huge
quantity of cases in such areas as admiralty,
patent, bankruptcy, and copyright law.' Blatch-
ford wrote the opinion in Chicago, Milwaukee
and St. Paul Railway  Co.  v. Minnesota,6 the
pivotal case when the Court accepted  the due
process clause as a substantive limitation on state
legislative powers. Miller concurred in that deci-
sion, while Bradley and Lamar were two of the
three dissenters.7
   Stephen J. Field (1863-97) was intermittently
senile during his last years on the Court as he
stubbornly insisted on breaking John Marshall's
record for tenure. Nonetheless, Field contrib-
uted to the triumph of his jurisprudential views,
linking vested rights and the due process clause.

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