Pierce Butler (justice)

Pierce Butler (March 17, 1866 – November 16, 1939) was an American jurist who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1923 until his death in 1939. He is notable for being the first Justice from Minnesota, and for being a Democrat appointed by a Republican president, Warren G. Harding.

Pierce Butler
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
In office
December 21, 1922  November 16, 1939[1]
Nominated byWarren Harding
Preceded byWilliam Day
Succeeded byFrank Murphy
Personal details
Born(1866-03-17)March 17, 1866
Dakota County, Minnesota, U.S.
DiedNovember 16, 1939(1939-11-16) (aged 73)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Annie Cronin (m. 1891)
EducationCarleton College (BS)

Early life and education

Butler was born to Patrick and Mary Ann Butler, Catholic immigrants from County Wicklow, Ireland. (The pair met in Galena, Illinois, after having left the same part of Ireland because of the Irish Potato Famine.) Soon, the couple settled in Sciota, then Waterford, Dakota County, Minnesota. Their son Pierce Butler was the sixth of nine children born in a log cabin; all but his sister would live to adulthood.

Butler graduated from Carleton College, where he was a member of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity. He read for the law and was admitted to the bar in 1888. He married Annie M. Cronin in 1891.


He was elected as county attorney in Ramsey County in 1892, and re-elected in 1894.[2] Butler joined the law firm of How & Eller in 1896, which became How & Butler after the death of Homer C. Eller the following year. He accepted an offer to practice in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he took care of railroad-related litigation for James J. Hill. He was highly successful in representing railroads.[3]

In 1905 he returned to private practice and rejoined Jared How. He had also served as a lawyer for the company owned by his five brothers. In 1908, Butler was elected President of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

From 1912 to 1922, he worked in railroad law in Canada, alternately representing the shareholders of railroad companies and the Canadian government; he produced favorable results for both. When he was nominated for the United States Supreme Court in 1922, Butler was in the process of winning approximately $12,000,000 for the Toronto Street Railway shareholders.

Nomination and confirmation

Although he was supported by Chief Justice and former President William Howard Taft, Butler's opposition to "radical" and "disloyal" professors at the University of Minnesota (where he had served on the Board of Regents) made him a controversial Supreme Court nominee when proposed by Republican President Warren Harding. The Senator-elect Henrik Shipstead of his home state opposed him, as did the Progressive Senator Robert M. La Follette Sr. of Wisconsin.[3] Also against his confirmation were labor activists, some liberal magazines (The New Republic and The Nation) and the Ku Klux Klan because he was Catholic. However, with the support of prominent Roman Catholics, fellow lawyers (the Minnesota State Bar Association strongly endorsed him), and business groups (especially railroad companies), as well as Minnesota's other senator Knute Nelson, Butler was confirmed on Dec 21, 1922, by a margin of 61 to 8. The Senators who voted against him were five Democrats (Walter F. George, William J. Harris, J. Thomas Heflin, Morris Sheppard, and Park Trammell) and three Republicans (Robert M. La Follette Sr., Peter Norbeck, and George W. Norris). He took his seat on the Court on January 2, 1923.[4][5]

Court service

As an Associate Justice, Butler vigorously opposed regulation of business and the implementation of welfare programs by the federal government (as unconstitutional). During the Great Depression, he ruled against the constitutionality of many "New Deal" lawsthe Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the National Recovery Administrationwhich had been supported by his fellow Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.[3] This earned him a place among the so-called "Four Horsemen," which also included James Clark McReynolds, George Sutherland, and Willis Van Devanter.[3][6] During his sixteen years on the bench, Justice Butler authored 327 majority opinions as well as 50 eloquent minority opinions.

He wrote the majority opinion (6–3) in United States v. Schwimmer, in which the Hungarian immigrant's application for citizenship was denied because of her candid refusal to take an oath to "take up arms" for her adopted country.

In Palko v. Connecticut, Butler was the lone dissenter on the court; the rest of the justices believed that a state was not restrained from trying a man a second time for the same crime. Butler believed this violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

He sided with the majority in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, holding unconstitutional an Oregon state law which prohibited parents from sending their children to private or religious schools.[6]

In the 1927 decision for Buck v. Bell, Butler was the only Justice who dissented from the 8–1 ruling[7] and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s opinion holding that the forced sterilization of an allegedly "feeble-minded" woman in Virginia was constitutional.[8] Holmes believed that Butler's religion influenced his thinking in Buck, remarking that "Butler knows this is good law, I wonder whether he will have the courage to vote with us in spite of his religion."[9] Although Butler dissented in both Buck and Palko, he did not write a dissenting opinion in either case;[10] the practice of a Justice's noting a dissent without opinion was much more common then than it would be in the later 20th and early 21st centuries.

Another consequential dissent was from the opinion expressed in Olmstead v. United States which upheld federal wiretapping.[6] He took an expansive view of 4th Amendment protections.[5]

Death and legacy

On November 15, 1939, Butler went into the hospital for "a minor ailment" but died in the early morning hours of November 16. He died in Washington, D.C., at the age of 73 while still on the court. He was the last serving Supreme Court Justice appointed by President Harding. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul.[11][12]

Justice Butler is one of 13 Catholic Justices  of 113 total Justices in the history of the Supreme Court.[13][upper-alpha 1] 40.5 cubic feet (1.15 m3) of his and his family's collected papers are with the Minnesota Historical Society.[14][15] Other papers are collected elsewhere.[15]

Pierce Butler Route[16] in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is named in honor of Butler.

See also



  1. See Demographics of the Supreme Court of the United States. (Justice Sherman Minton converted to Catholicism after his retirement.)


  • "Pierce Butler". Federal Judicial Center.
  • Danelski, David J. (1964). A Supreme Court Justice is Appointed. New York: Random House. p. 242.
  • Stras, David R. (August 26, 2008). "Pierce Butler: A Supreme Technician". Vanderbilt Law Review (pdf (full paper downloadable)). 62. SSRN 1259314.
  • Fernandes, Ashley K. (2002). "The Power of Dissent: Pierce Butler and Buck v. Bell". Journal for Peace and Justice Studies. 12 (1): 115–134. Archived from the original on 2013-04-15.


  1. "Federal Judicial Center: Pierce Butler". 2009-12-12. Archived from the original on 2009-05-14. Retrieved 2009-12-12.
  2. "Pierce Butler". Supreme Court Historical Society. Retrieved July 24, 2012.
  3. "Pierce Butler". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2012. Retrieved July 24, 2012.
  4. "Pierce Butler". Federal Judicial Center.
  5. "Pierce Butler". Oyez.org. Retrieved July 24, 2012.
  6. Ariens, Michael. "Pierce Butler". Michael Ariens. Archived from the original on October 16, 2002. Retrieved July 24, 2012.
  7. Stephen Jay Gould, "Does the Stonless Plum Instruct the Thinking Reed," in Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995) p. 287.
  8. Thompson, Phillip (February 20, 2005). "Silent Protest: A Catholic Justice Dissents in Buck v. Bell" (PDF). Catholic Lawyer. 43 (1): 125–148. Archived from the original (PDF) on January 13, 2013. Retrieved July 24, 2012.
  9. Leuchtenburg, William E. (1995). "Mr. Justice Holmes and Three Generations of Imbeciles". The Supreme Court Reborn: The Constitutional Revolution in the Age of Roosevelt. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 15. ISBN 978-0195086133.
  10. Fernandes, Ashley K. (2002). "The Power of Dissent: Pierce Butler and Buck v. Bell". Journal for Peace and Justice Studies. 12 (1): 115–134. Archived from the original on 2013-04-15.
  11. "Christensen, George A. (1983) Here Lies the Supreme Court: Gravesites of the Justices, Yearbook". Archived from the original on September 3, 2005. Retrieved 2005-09-03.. Supreme Court Historical Society at Internet Archive.
  12. Christensen, George A., Here Lies the Supreme Court: Revisited, Journal of Supreme Court History, Volume 33 Issue 1, Pages 17 – 41 (Feb 19, 2008), University of Alabama.
  13. "Religious affiliation of Supreme Court justices". Retrieved July 24, 2012.
  14. Johnson, Kathryn A. (July 1991). "Pierce Butler papers" (pdf). Minnesota Historical Society. Retrieved July 24, 2012.
  15. "Pierce Butler, Research collections". Federal Judicial Center. Archived from the original on September 25, 2012. Retrieved July 24, 2012.
  16. "Pierce Butler Route".

Further reading

Legal offices
Preceded by
William Day
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Succeeded by
Frank Murphy
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