Melville Fuller

Melville Weston Fuller (February 11, 1833 – July 4, 1910) was an American politician, lawyer, and jurist who served as the eighth chief justice of the United States from 1888 until his death in 1910. Staunch conservatism marked his tenure on the Supreme Court, exhibited by his tendency to support unfettered free enterprise and to oppose broad federal power. He wrote major opinions on the federal income tax, the Commerce Clause, and citizenship law, and he took part in important decisions about racial segregation and the liberty of contract. Those rulings often faced criticism in the decades during and after Fuller's tenure, and many were later overruled or abrogated. The legal academy has generally viewed Fuller negatively, although a revisionist minority has taken a more favorable view of his jurisprudence.

Melville Fuller
8th Chief Justice of the United States
In office
October 8, 1888  July 4, 1910
Nominated byGrover Cleveland
Preceded byMorrison Waite
Succeeded byEdward Douglass White
Personal details
Melville Weston Fuller

(1833-02-11)February 11, 1833
Augusta, Maine, U.S.
DiedJuly 4, 1910(1910-07-04) (aged 77)
Sorrento, Maine, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Calista Reynolds
(m. 1858; died 1864)

Mary Coolbaugh
(m. 1866; died 1904)
EducationBowdoin College

Born in Augusta, Maine, Fuller established a legal practice in Chicago after graduating from Bowdoin College. A Democrat, he became involved in politics, campaigning for Stephen A. Douglas in the 1860 presidential election. During the Civil War, he served a single term in the Illinois House of Representatives, where he opposed the policies of President Abraham Lincoln. Fuller became a prominent attorney in Chicago and was a delegate to several Democratic national conventions. He declined three separate appointments offered by President Grover Cleveland before accepting the nomination to succeed Morrison Waite as Chief Justice. Despite some objections to his political past, Fuller won Senate confirmation in 1888. He served as Chief Justice until his death in 1910, gaining a reputation for collegiality and able administration.

Fuller's jurisprudence was conservative, focusing strongly on states' rights, limited federal power, and economic liberty. His majority opinion in Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co. (1895) ruled a federal income tax to be unconstitutional; the Sixteenth Amendment later superseded the decision. Fuller's opinion in United States v. E. C. Knight Co. (1895) narrowly interpreted Congress's authority under the Commerce Clause, limiting the reach of the Sherman Act and making government prosecution of antitrust cases more difficult. In Lochner v. New York (1905), Fuller agreed with the majority that the Constitution forbade states from enforcing wage-and-hour restrictions on businesses, contending that the Due Process Clause prevents government infringement on one's liberty to control one's property and business affairs. Fuller joined the majority in the now-reviled case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the Court articulated the doctrine of separate but equal and upheld Jim Crow laws. He argued in the Insular Cases that residents of the territories are entitled to constitutional rights, but he dissented when, in United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), the majority ruled in favor of birthright citizenship.

Many of Fuller's decisions did not stand the test of time. His views on economic liberty were squarely rejected by the Court during the New Deal era, and the Plessy opinion was unanimously reversed in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Fuller's historical reputation has been generally unfavorable, with many scholars arguing that he was overly deferential to corporations and the wealthy. While a resurgence of conservative legal thought has brought Fuller new defenders, an increase in racial awareness has also led to new scrutiny of his ruling in Plessy. In 2021, Kennebec County commissioners voted unanimously to remove a statue of Fuller from public land, aiming to dissociate the county from racial segregation.