Establish Justice

Principle #3 from the Enacting Clause (Preamble) of the United States Constitution

Full Episode Transcript

Melville W. Fuller was the first Chief Justice to lobby Congress. He successfully advocated for the adoption of the Circuit Courts of Appeals Act of 1891. It established appellate courts, which reduced the Supreme Court’s backlog and allowed it to decide cases in a more timely manner. In 1893, President Grover Cleveland offered to appoint Fuller to be Secretary of State.  He declined, contending that accepting a political appointment would harm the Supreme Court’s reputation for impartiality.

Many legal scholars have argued that Fuller, who served from 1888 until his death in 1910, was overly deferential to business interests and those of the wealthy. Prior to his service as Chief Justice, he vehemently opposed the policies of President Abraham Lincoln. He helped develop a gerrymandered system for congressional apportionment, corroding the democracy underpinnings of our constitutional republic.

Fuller supported barring African-Americans from voting or settling in Illinois. He spoke in opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation and he worked to prevent the federal government from outlawing slavery, thereby impairing the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for those who were actively building the nation. While serving as Chief Justice, he placed the Court’s imprimatur on Jim Crow laws with Plessy. The Fuller Court also rejected a challenge to poll taxes and literacy tests that effectively disenfranchised Mississippi’s African-American population.

Fuller was instrumental in setting equal justice under law squarely onto a plane of unreality as he worked to maintain the two tiered justice system. In 2021, the commissioners of Kennebec County, Maine voted unanimously to remove a statue of Fuller from public land with the aim of dissociating the county from racial segregation.

In Lochner v. New York, Fuller agreed with the majority that the Constitution forbade states from enforcing wage-and-hour restrictions on businesses. The 1905 case involved a New York law that capped hours for bakery workers at sixty per week. In a decision widely viewed to be among the Supreme Court’s worst, a five-justice majority held the law to be unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause. The opinion, written by Justice Rufus W. Peckham and joined by Fuller, maintained that the liberty protected by that clause included a right to enter labor contracts without being subject to unreasonable governmental regulation.  Peckham rejected the state’s argument that the law was intended to protect workers’ health, citing the “common understanding” that baking was not unhealthy.  He maintained that bakers could protect their own health, arguing that the law was in fact a labor regulation in disguise. Most scholars believe that the majority in Lochner engaged in judicial activism, substituting their own views for those within the democratically elected branches of government.