During his time on the Supreme Court bench, Pierce Butler was widely known for being the author of a number of firsts. He was the first Catholic to be appointed to the bench. He was also the only member of the Democratic party to be nominated to the bench by a Republican President, in this case, Warren G. Harding. Butler was known for his extreme conservative stances on issues. In later years, he was one of the infamous “Four Horsemen” on the Supreme Court bench who were known for radical opposition to the “New Deal” legislation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Life of a Supreme Court Justice Began as the Son of Immigrants
Pierce Butler was born in Dakota County, Minnesota on March 17, 1866. He was the son of Catholic immigrants who had been forced to flee from Ireland in the wake of the potato famine. He completed his initial schooling at Carleton College, graduating as a member of the prestigious Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. He then prepared for a legal career by reading for the bar, which he won admission to in 1888. He was married to Annie Cronin in 1891.
Early Success Representing Railroads Set the Tone For a Successful Career
Butler won election to the post of county attorney for Ramsey County in 1892. He was subsequently reelected in 1894. After serving successfully in this position, he then joined the legal firm of How and Eller in 1896. After the death of senior partner Homer Eller in 1897, the firm became How and Butler. Some time later, Butler accepted a new offer from James J. Hill to practice law on behalf of railroad interests in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was highly successful as a company man and gained a far ranging fame for being a staunch defender of railroad and other corporate interests.
Butler Reached the Pinnacle of His Local Success in 1908
Butler then returned to his private practice, rejoining Jared How in 1905. During his time in St. Paul, he had also served as a lawyer in a firm owned by five of his brothers. In 1908, Butler reached the pinnacle of his local success by being elected to the post of President of the Minnesota State Bar Association. His connections with railroad interests were a major part of his success, which he sought to minimize by proclaiming his ultimate independence from any particular set of outside influences.
A Sudden Move to Canada Presaged His Ultimate Success in America
In the year 1912, Butler made a very surprising left turn. He left the United States in order to work as a lawyer in Canada. However, the move was soon explained when it became known that he was working on behalf of the shareholders of railroad companies. During the next decade, Butler worked tirelessly on behalf of the rich corporate class in Canada. He applied much the same methods and general philosophy that had won him the friendship of corporate interests in his native country, with the result that his personal wealth increased to a prodigious level.
Surprisingly, this career move had a positive effect on his prospects for success back home in the United States. Butler was in the process of winning a total of 12 million dollars for shareholders of the Toronto Street Railway when news of his nomination to the United States Supreme Court broke in 1922.
Butler’s Nomination to the Supreme Court Was a Source of Controversy
The nomination of Pierce Butler to the Supreme Court by President Harding was seen as a victory for conservative corporate interests. The move was opposed by a variety of influential figures, including Senators Robert M. LaFollette, Sr. and Henrik Shipstead. It was also opposed by labor unions, Progressive elements of both parties, and even the Ku Klux Klan – this last demurral due to Butler’s status as a practicing Catholic. However, the nomination was a success and Butler took his seat on the Supreme Court bench as an Associate Justice in 1922.
Butler’s Career as a Supreme Court Justice Was a Conservative Victory
Butler quickly established himself as a true champion of corporate interests. He was known for his steadfast refusal to countenance any kind of regulation of corporate activities. This included his continuing rejection of anti-trust legal theory as well as any new measures in that direction that were contemplated by Progressive elements in either party. This led him into direct conflict with President Franklin D. Roosevelt on more than one occasion. Indeed, despite his own status as a member of the Democratic Party, Butler was known as an ally of Republican conservative elements.
Butler Proved to Be a Lifelong Opponent of Progressive Theory
Butler’s presence on the bench made him a constant thorn in the side of President Roosevelt, as well as Progressive elements in both parties. During his time as a Supreme Court Justice, Butler consistently voted against the enactment of New Deal legislation. This included the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the National Recovery Administration. At the very height of the Great Depression, Butler was also a staunch foe of Federal welfare programs, holding them to be unconstitutional.
The End Came For Butler While Still Serving on the Bench
The end finally came for Pierce Butler while still serving on the Bench. On November 15, 1939, Butler was admitted to a Washington, D.C. hospital after claiming to suffer from a “minor ailment.” However, Butler was pronounced dead at the hospital the following morning. His body was taken back to St. Paul, Minnesota and interred at the Catholic Calvary cemetery.
Butler’s Legacy as a Supreme Court Justice
After his death, Butler was honored by fellow members of the conservative “Four Horsemen” on the Bench. However, his legacy remains controversial. His staunch opposition to New Deal reforms was the logical outcome of his championship of railroad and other corporate interests. He remains well regarded by conservative members of both parties and has latterly been hailed as a forerunner of the modern Neoconservative position.