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. His tenure on the Supreme Court was marked by staunch conservatism, exhibited by his support for corporations and his opposition to broad federal power. He authored major opinions on the federal income tax, the Commerce Clause, and citizenship law, and he took part in significant decisions regarding 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 (BA, MA)

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, with a strong focus on states' rights, limited federal power, and economic liberty. His majority opinion in Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co. ruled a federal income tax to be unconstitutional; the decision was later superseded by the Sixteenth Amendment. Fuller's opinion in United States v. E. C. Knight Co. 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, 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, 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, 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. 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 disassociate the county from racial segregation.

Early life

Melville Weston Fuller was born on February 11, 1833, in Augusta, Maine, the second son of Catherine Martin (née Weston) and Frederick Augustus Fuller.[1]:903 His maternal grandfather, Nathan Weston, served on the Supreme Court of Maine, and his paternal grandfather was a probate judge.[2]:4 His father practiced law in Augusta.[3]:1471–1472 Three months after Fuller was born, his mother successfully sued for divorce on grounds of adultery; she and her children moved into Judge Weston's home.[3]:1472 In 1849, the sixteen-year-old Fuller enrolled at Bowdoin College, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1853.[4]:120 He studied law in the office of an uncle before spending six months at Harvard Law School.[5]:339 While he did not receive a degree from Harvard, his attendance made him the first chief justice to have received formal academic legal training.[5]:339 Fuller was admitted to the Maine bar in 1855 and clerked for another uncle in Bangor.[6]:199 Later that year, he moved back to Augusta to become, in partnership with another uncle, the editor of The Age, Maine's primary Democratic newspaper.[7]:30 Fuller was elected to Augusta's common council in March 1856, serving as the council's president and as the city solicitor.[3]:1472


In 1856, Fuller left Maine for Chicago, Illinois.[7]:35 The city presented greater opportunities and a more favorable political climate to Fuller, a steadfast Democrat.[2]:5 In addition, a broken engagement likely encouraged him to head west.[7]:32 In Chicago, Fuller accepted a position with a local law firm, and he also became involved in politics.[2]:6 While Fuller opposed slavery, he considered it an issue for the states rather than the federal government.[7]:41 He supported the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed Kansas and Nebraska to determine the slavery issue themselves.[7]:42 Fuller opposed both abolitionists and secessionists, arguing instead for compromise.[2]:6 He campaigned for Stephen A. Douglas both in his successful 1858 Senate campaign against Abraham Lincoln and in his unsuccessful bid against Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election.[6]:199

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Fuller supported military action against the Confederacy.[2]:6 However, he opposed the way in which the Lincoln administration was conducting the war, and he decried many of Lincoln's actions as unconstitutional.[6]:199 Fuller was elected as a Democratic delegate to the 1862 Illinois constitutional convention.[2]:7 He helped develop a gerrymandered system for congressional apportionment, and he supported provisions prohibiting African-Americans from voting or settling in the state.[8]:52 He also advocated for court reform and for a ban on the printing of paper money. Although the convention adopted many of his proposals, the proposed constitution was ultimately rejected by the voters in June 1862.[2]:7

In November 1862, Fuller was narrowly elected to a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives as a Democrat.[2]:8 The majority-Democrat legislature clashed with Republican governor Richard Yates and opposed the wartime policies of President Lincoln.[2]:8 Fuller spoke in opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation, arguing that it violated state sovereignty.[7]:55–56 He also supported the Corwin Amendment, which would have prevented the federal government from outlawing slavery.[2]:8 Fuller opposed Lincoln's decision to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, believing it to violate civil liberties.[2]:8 Yates ultimately adjourned the legislature, over the vehement objections of Fuller and the Democrats.[7]:56 The frustrated Fuller never again sought legislative office, although he continued to take part in Democratic party politics.[2]:9

Advertisement for Fuller's law practice, printed in the Chicago Tribune, May 4, 1860

Fuller maintained a successful legal practice, arguing on behalf of many corporations and businessmen.[2]:11 He represented the city of Chicago in a land dispute with the Illinois Central Railroad.[2]:11 In 1869, he took on what became his most significant case: defending Chicago clergyman Charles E. Cheney, whom the Episcopal Church was attempting to remove because he disagreed with church teaching on baptismal regeneration.[7]:69–70 Believing the ecclesiastical court to be biased against Cheney, Fuller filed suit in Chicago Superior Court, arguing that Cheney possessed a property right in his position.[2]:12 The Superior Court agreed and entered an injunction against the ecclesiastical court's proceedings.[2]:12 However, the Supreme Court of Illinois reversed the injunction, holding that church disciplinary proceedings could not be reviewed by the civil courts.[7]:70 Cheney was found guilty by the ecclesiastical court, but he refused to leave his pulpit.[2]:12 The matter returned to the courts, where Fuller argued that only the local congregation had the right to remove Cheney.[2]:12 The Supreme Court of Illinois ultimately agreed, holding that the congregation's property was not under the purview of Episcopal Church leadership.[3]:1476 Fuller's defense of Cheney garnered him national prominence.[2]:13

Beginning in 1871, Fuller also litigated before the Supreme Court of the United States, arguing numerous cases.[2]:13 His legal practice involved many areas of law, and he became one of Chicago's most highly paid lawyers.[2]:13–14 He remained involved in the politics of the Democratic Party, serving as a delegate to the party convention in 1872, 1876, and 1880.[2]:9 Fuller supported a strict construction of the U.S. Constitution.[2]:14–15 He firmly opposed the printing of paper money,[7]:77 and he spoke out against the Supreme Court's 1884 decision in Juilliard v. Greenman upholding Congress's power to issue it.[2]:15 He was a supporter of states' rights and generally advocated for limited government. Fuller strongly supported President Grover Cleveland, a fellow Democrat who agreed with many of his views.[2]:18 Cleveland successively attempted to appoint Fuller to chair the United States Civil Service Commission, to serve as Solicitor General, and to be a United States Pacific Railway Commissioner, but Fuller declined each nomination.[7]:100–102

Nomination to Supreme Court

Fuller's Chief Justice nomination

On March 23, 1888, Chief Justice Morrison Waite died, creating a vacancy for President Cleveland to fill.[2]:16 The Senate was narrowly under Republican control, so it was necessary for Cleveland to nominate someone who could obtain bipartisan support.[2]:16 Cleveland sought to appoint a young candidate, preferably one under the age of sixty.[7]:104–105 He considered Vermont native Edward J. Phelps, the ambassador to the United Kingdom, but he was opposed by the political influential Irish-American community, which viewed him as an Anglophile.[9]:885–886 Furthermore, the sixty-six-year-old Phelps was thought to be too old for the job, and the Supreme Court already had one justice from New England.[7]:106 Senator George Gray was considered, but appointing him would create a vacancy in the closely divided Senate.[2]:17 Cleveland eventually decided that he wanted to appoint someone from Illinois, both for political reasons and because the court had no justices from the Seventh Circuit, which included Illinois.[2]:17 Fuller, who had become a confidant of Cleveland, encouraged the President to appoint John Scholfield, who served on the Illinois Supreme Court.[7]:106–107 Cleveland offered the position to Scholfield, but he declined, apparently because his wife was too rustic for urban life in Washington, D.C.[7]:107 Fuller's name came into consideration, in no small part because of the efforts of his friends, many of whom had written letters to Cleveland in support of him.[7]:107–110 At fifty-five years old, Fuller was young enough for the position, and Cleveland approved of his reputation and political views.[7]:108, 111 In addition, Illinois Republican senator Shelby Cullom expressed support, convincing Cleveland that Fuller would likely receive bipartisan support in the Senate.[7]:112 Cleveland thus offered Fuller the nomination, which he reluctantly accepted.[10]:113–114 Fuller was formally nominated on April 30.[2]:18

Public reaction to Fuller's nomination was mixed: Some newspapers lauded his character and professional career, while others criticized his comparative obscurity and his lack of experience in the federal government.[2]:19–20 The nomination was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was chaired by Vermont Republican George F. Edmunds.[7]:115 Edmunds was displeased that his friend Phelps had not been appointed, and so he delayed committee action and endeavored to scuttle Fuller's nomination.[2]:20 The Republicans seized upon Fuller's time in the Illinois Legislature, in which he had opposed many of Lincoln's wartime policies.[7]:116 They portrayed him as a Copperhead – an anti-war Northern Democrat – and published a tract claiming that "[t]he records of the Illinois legislature of 1863 are black with Mr. Fuller's unworthy and unpatriotic conduct."[2]:20 Some Illinois Republicans, including Lincoln's son Robert, came to Fuller's defense, arguing that his actions were imprudent but not an indicator of disloyalty.[2]:20[7]:116–117 Fuller's detractors also claimed that he would reverse the Supreme Court's ruling in the recent legal-tender case of Juilliard; his defenders replied that he would be faithful to precedent.[2]:20–21 Vague allegations of professional improprieties were levied, but an investigation failed to substantiate them.[2]:21–22 The Judiciary Committee took no action on the nomination, and many believed that Edmunds was attempting to hold it off until after the 1888 presidential election.[2]:22 Cullom, however, demanded an immediate vote, fearing that delay on Fuller's nomination could harm Republicans' prospects of winning Illinois.[2]:22 The committee reported the nomination without recommendation on July 2, 1888.[11]:33

The full Senate took up Fuller's nomination on July 20.[2]:22 Several prominent Republican senators, including William M. Evarts of New York, Nevada's William Morris Stewart, and Edmunds, spoke against the nomination, arguing that Fuller was a disloyal Copperhead who would misinterpret the Reconstruction Amendments and roll back the progress made by the Civil War.[2]:22 Illinois's two Republican senators, Cullom and Charles B. Farwell, defended Fuller's actions and character.[2]:22 Cullom read an anti-Lincoln speech that had been given by Phelps, Edmunds's choice for the position.[7]:120 He accused Edmunds of hypocrisy and insincerity, saying that he was simply resentful that Phelps had not been chosen.[7]:120 The Democratic senators did not participate in the debate, aiming to let the Republicans squabble among themselves.[7]:120–121 When the matter came to a vote, Fuller was confirmed 41 to 20, with 15 absences.[12] Ten Republicans, including Republican National Committee chair Matthew Quay and two senators from Fuller's home state of Maine, joined the Democrats in supporting Fuller's nomination.[2]:23 Fuller took the judicial oath on October 8, 1888, formally becoming Chief Justice of the United States.[2]:24[13]

Chief Justice

Chief Justice Fuller administering the oath to William McKinley as president in 1897. Outgoing president Grover Cleveland stands to the right.

Fuller served twenty-two years as Chief Justice, remaining in the center chair until his death in 1910.[14] Although he lacked legal genius, his potent administrative skills made him a capable manager of the court's business.[4]:123[15]:372 Hoping to increase the Court's collegiality, Fuller introduced the practice of the justices' shaking hands before their private conferences.[16]:223 He successfully maintained more-or-less cordial relationships among the justices, many of whom had large egos and difficult tempers.[17]:61–63 His collegiality notwithstanding, Fuller presided over a divided Court: the justices split 5–4 sixty-four times during his tenure, more often than in subsequent years.[18]:43 Fuller himself, however, wrote few dissents, disagreeing with the majority in only 2.3 percent of cases.[17]:63 Fuller played a prominent role in convincing Congress to adopt the Circuit Courts of Appeals Act of 1891, which eased the Supreme Court's caseload by establishing intermediate appellate courts.[4]:134 He assigned the writing of many major decisions to his colleagues; as a result, his name is not associated with many landmark opinions.[19]:202–203 According to professor Walter F. Pratt, Fuller's writing style was "nondescript";[20]:219 his opinions were lengthy and contained numerous quotations.[17]:61 Felix Frankfurter opined that Fuller was "not a opinion writer whom you read for literary enjoyment."[9]:889

In 1893, Cleveland offered to appoint Fuller to be Secretary of State.[16]:224 He declined, saying that he enjoyed his work as Chief Justice and contending that accepting a political appointment would harm the Supreme Court's reputation for impartiality.[18]:45 Remaining on the Court, he accepted a seat on an 1897 commission to arbitrate the Venezuelan boundary dispute, and he served ten years on the Permanent Court of Arbitration.[16]:224 Fuller's health declined after the year 1900,[6]:201 and scholar David Garrow suggests that his "growing enfeeblement" inhibited his work.[21]:1012 In what biographer Willard King calls "[p]erhaps the worst year in the history of the Court" – the term from October 1909 to May 1910 – two justices died and one became fully incapacitated; Fuller's weakened state compounded the problem.[7]:309 Fuller himself died that July,[7]:309 and President William Howard Taft nominated Associate Justice Edward Douglass White to replace him.[17]:67–68


Fuller's jurisprudence is generally identified as conservative.[2]:1–2[18]:41 He favored states' rights over federal power, attempting to prevent the national government from asserting broad control over economic matters.[22]:42 Yet he was also skeptical of the states' powers: he agreed with the concept of substantive due process and used it to strike down state laws that, in his view, unduly encroached upon the free market.[3]:1481–1482[22]:42–43 Fuller took no interest in preventing racial inequality, although his views on other civil rights issues were less definitive.[15]:372 Much of Fuller's jurisprudence has not stood the test of time: many of his decisions have been reversed by Congress or overruled by later Supreme Court majorities.[18]:41 Summarizing Fuller's views of the law, scholar Irving Schiffman wrote that "he was a conservative, laissez faire Justice, less reactionary than some of his brethren, more compassionate than others, but a spokesman for what now seems a far-off and bygone judicial age."[3]:1481

Economic issues

Income tax

Fuller's most noteworthy decision was perhaps his 1895 opinion in Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co.[23]:184 In 1894, Congress passed the Wilson–Gorman Tariff Act, which levied a two-percent tax on incomes exceeding $4000 a year.[24]:285 Since it imposed the nation's first peacetime income tax, this section of the Act was very controversial: Its supporters aimed to rectify wealth inequality and to lower the tariff rate, while its opponents (mainly Republicans) argued that it would fall disproportionately on industrialized states.[2]:117–118 The tax was taken to court, where its challengers argued that it was a direct tax that had not been apportioned evenly among the states, in violation of a provision of the Constitution.[3]:1487 (In practice, apportioning income tax by state would be impossible, so a ruling on this basis would doom federal income taxes.[2]:118) When the matter reached the Supreme Court, it unexpectedly agreed with the challengers and, by a 5–4 vote, struck down the income tax.[25]:805 The majority opinion, written by Fuller, held that the Framers intended the term "direct tax" to include property and that income was itself a form of property.[26]:200–203 Over biting dissents, Fuller thus concluded that the unapportioned tax was unconstitutional.[23]:185

The public reacted unfavorably to the Pollock decision, and many argued that it disregarded the precedents set by previous cases.[25]:806–807 Former Oregon governor Sylvester Pennoyer even called for the impeachment of the justices in the majority.[25]:806 The Sixteenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, abrogated Pollock by allowing Congress to levy income taxes without apportionment.[27]:1723 However, the Supreme Court has never formally overruled Pollock's reasoning; to the contrary, Chief Justice John Roberts cited it in the 2012 Affordable Care Act case National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius.[25]:813 Most modern legal scholars believe that Pollock was wrongly decided,[25]:807 with professor Calvin H. Johnson calling it "a terrible example of judicial bad behavior" that should be "reverse[d] in full".[27]:1734 Professor Erik M. Jensen takes a minority position, agreeing with Pollock[25]:807 and extending it to argue for the unconstitutionality of flat taxes[28]:2334; 2407–2414 and wealth taxes.[29] In any event, Fuller's Pollock opinion remains relevant in contemporary public policy.[30]:8–9

Business and labor
Antitrust law

After Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, Fuller and the Court were called on to address many antitrust cases.[2]:128–129 In the 1895 case of United States v. E. C. Knight Co., the Court upheld the act but sharply curtailed its reach.[2]:129 The federal government had brought suit under the Sherman Act against the American Sugar Refining Company, arguing that it was a monopoly because it controlled over ninety percent of the American sugar refining market.[4]:144 Writing for an eight-justice majority, Fuller determined that manufacturing, such as sugar refining, was not commerce and therefore could not be regulated under the federal government's interstate commerce power.[31]:372–373 Fuller wrote that "[c]ommerce succeeds to manufacture, and is not a part of it," arguing that the federal government could only break up monopolies that were directly restraining interstate commerce.[31]:373 He feared that a broader interpretation of the Commerce Clause would impinge upon states' rights, and he thus held that the Sugar Trust could only be broken up by the states in which it operated.[2]:130 The case displays Fuller's tendency to support a limited federal government.[2]:130 The legal academy generally views Knight as an unduly restrictive interpretation of the Commerce Clause,[31]:366–367 although professor Richard Epstein has argued that it aligns with founding-era precedents.[32]:1399–1400 The Court's expansive Commerce Clause cases during the New Deal period essentially abrogated Knight.[2]:134

Fuller participated in several other major antitrust cases.[2]:129 In the 1904 case of Northern Securities Co. v. United States, a majority broke up the Northern Securities Company, a railroad holding company, because the majority viewed it to be a monopoly.[2]:132 Fuller dissented, joining opinions written by Justices Edward Douglass White and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.[33]:336, 341 The dissenters argued that simply holding stock in a company did not count as interstate commerce, and so they would have held that the Sherman Act did not apply to holding companies.[2]:132–133 The Fuller Court was unanimous in Swift & Co. v. United States (1905), which green-lighted antitrust enforcement against meat-packing companies.[2]:133–134 Although meat-packing did not directly involve interstate commerce, the Court held that the Commerce Clause still applied because the meat products would eventually be sold across state lines.[2]:133–134 Citing Swift and other cases, James W. Ely has argued that Fuller was not opposed to federal antitrust laws per se, but only to expansive readings of the Commerce Clause.[2]:134

Other Commerce Clause cases

Fuller dissented from the Court's 1903 decision in Champion v. Ames, in which five justices upheld a federal ban on transporting lottery tickets across state lines.[34]:75–76 Fuller's opinion argued that Congress's power to regulate commerce did not extend to banning it.[35]:47 He feared that the law violated the principles of federalism and states' rights protected by the Tenth Amendment.[35]:47 Legal scholars argue that the majority opinion in Ames was among the first cases to use the Commerce Clause to grant the federal government a de facto police power to protect the welfare of the public.[35]:45 Fuller also dissented in McCray v. United States, a 1904 case that greenlighted the use of the federal taxing power for regulatory purposes.[34]:73 McCray effectively allowed Congress to regulate intrastate commercial activity by simply levying taxes on it; the decision curtailed Fuller's opinion in Knight and showed that Fuller's support for a limited federal government could not always garner the support of a majority of the Court.[2]:140–141


The organized labor movement grew substantially in the 1890s, and several legal disputes involving unions were presented to the Supreme Court.[2]:134 In 1894, the American Railway Union organized a strike against the Pullman Company.[36]:260 A Chicago federal court issued an injunction against the union's leaders, ordering them to stop facilitating the strike.[2]:135[36]:260–261 Union president Eugene V. Debs and other union officials defied the order, and the court sentenced them to prison for contempt of court.[36]:261 Debs sought relief before the Supreme Court, but the justices – including Fuller[4]:145 – unanimously upheld the convictions in the 1895 case of In re Debs.[37]:100, 102 Broadly construing the federal government's authority, the Court held that the judicial branch had the power to enjoin anything that obstructed interstate commerce.[36]:261 The Debs case opened the door to injunctions in labor cases,[38]:49–50 and scholars have cited it as a key moment in the Court's expansion of its equitable authority.[39]:1131–1132 In Loewe v. Lawlor (1908), Fuller wrote a unanimous opinion for the Court holding that unions were subject to the Sherman Act and could therefore be sued themselves for antitrust violations.[15]:591 The decision was a major blow to the labor movement, although it was ultimately curtailed by the 1914 Clayton Act and the 1932 Norris–La Guardia Act.[40]:353, 355–356 Some have argued that the Fuller Court was biased against organized labor,[40]:353 while others have maintained that it was simply trying to prevent interference in interstate commerce.[2]:136

Substantive due process

Fuller joined the majority in the 1905 case of Lochner v. New York.[41]:1496 Lochner involved a New York law that capped hours for bakery workers at sixty hours a week.[42]:520 In a decision widely viewed to be among the Supreme Court's worst,[42]:516 a five-justice majority held the law to be unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause.[15]:588–589 The opinion, written by Justice Rufus W. Peckham, maintained that the liberty protected by that clause included a right to enter labor contracts without being subject to unreasonable governmental regulation.[41]:1497 Peckham rejected the state's argument that the law was intended to protect workers' health, citing the "common understanding" that baking was not unhealthy.[15]:590 He maintained that bakers were capable of protecting their own health, and he argued that the law was in fact a labor regulation in disguise.[2]:98 In a now-famous dissent, Justice Holmes accused the majority of substituting its own economic opinions for the requirements of the Constitution.[41]:1500 Most scholars agree that Fuller and his fellow justices in the majority engaged in judicial activism in Lochner and other substantive-due-process decisions.[42]:519 The Fuller Court was not exclusively hostile to labor regulation: in Muller v. Oregon (1908), it unanimously upheld an Oregon law capping women's working hours at ten hours a day.[2]:100–101 Nonetheless, Fuller's decision to join the majority in the Lochner case, which the Court ultimately abandoned in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (1937),[42]:541 has harmed his historical reputation substantially.[43]:109

Plessy v. Ferguson

The Fuller Court in 1899

In the infamous[44]:15 case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Court upheld by a vote of 7–1 a Louisiana law that required the racial segregation of railroad passengers.[45]:321, 333 Fuller joined the majority opinion, which was written by Justice Henry Billings Brown.[46]:35 Brown rejected the claim that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause,[45]:321 maintaining instead that "separate but equal" distinctions were constitutional.[47]:397 Citing "the nature of things", the majority averred that equal protection did not require the "commingling" of blacks and whites.[47]:398 Brown also argued that the Louisiana law did not suggest that blacks were inferior,[45]:321 stating that it was based on "the established usages, customs and traditions of the people".[48]:127–128 Justice Harlan dissented, using in the process the now-famous phrase "Our Constitution is color-blind."[49]:10 The Plessy decision placed the Court's imprimatur on Jim Crow laws.[50]:24 It instituted a half-century of what Louis H. Pollak called "humiliation-by-law",[46]:35 which continued until the Court reversed course in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).[49]:9–10 Fuller's decision to join the majority in Plessy has significantly damaged his historical reputation.[43]:109

Citizenship, immigration, and the territories

As a result of the Spanish–American War, the United States took control of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, raising knotty legal issues about their status under the Constitution.[51]:430 The Supreme Court addressed these disputes in a series of rulings in the so-called Insular Cases.[52]:489 In Downes v. Bidwell (1901), a fractured Court ruled 5–4 that the people living in the territories were not entitled to the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.[53]:225–229 Fuller, writing for the four dissenters, argued that Congress had no power to hold the territories "like a disembodied shade" free from all Constitutional limits.[54]:792 He contended that the Constitution could not tolerate unrestricted Congressional power over the territories, writing that it rejected that proposition in a way "too plain and unambiguous to permit its meaning to be thus influenced."[55]:72 Fuller's opinion was in line both with his strict-constructionist views and with his party's opposition to American imperialism.[2]:176 While the Court has never adopted Fuller's position,[53]:182 scholars such as Juan R. Torruella have argued that it correctly interpreted the Constitution.[55]:73, 94–95

Fuller joined the majority in another of the Insular Cases: DeLima v. Bidwell (1901).[3]:1490 The Court heldagain by a 5–4 votethat Puerto Rico did not constitute a foreign country for purposes of federal tariff law.[54]:793–794 Put together, Downes and DeLima meant that the territories were neither domestic nor foreign under American law.[54]:795 The Court threaded the needle similarly in Gonzales v. Williams (1904).[56]:5–8 In a unanimous opinion by Fuller, the Justices ruled that Puerto Ricans were not aliens under federal law, but they refused to decide whether the people of Puerto Rico were American citizens.[56]:23 In Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. United States (1890), a six-justice majority ruled that Congress's power over the territories enabled it to dissolve the Mormon Church's charter and seize its property because of the church's endorsement of polygamy.[57]:31 Fuller penned a dissent, in which he maintained that Congress had no authority to order the confiscation of property.[57]:34–35 Rejecting the majority's broader interpretation of federal power, Fuller expressed fear that the decision would afford Congress "absolute power" over the denizens of the territories.[2]:178[57]:35 Fuller's position was, however, ultimately vindicated: Congress later passed a joint resolution restoring the church's property.[7]:148

The Fuller Court was generally unsympathetic toward the claims of Chinese immigrants.[2]:162 In the 1889 Chinese Exclusion Case, the justices unanimously rejected a challenge to the Chinese Exclusion Act.[58]:31 Although treaties with China allowed for immigration, the Court held that Congress was not bound by them, ruling that the Act abrogated all treaty obligations to the contrary.[58]:31 In Fong Yue Ting v. United States (1893), a majority held that Congress had total authority over aliens and that they could be expelled on any basis whatsoever.[52]:487–488 Three justices, including Fuller, dissented, arguing that aliens were at least entitled to some Constitutional protections.[59]:14 Fuller again dissented in United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), in which the Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment ensured birthright citizenship – automatic citizenship for all children born on American soil.[60]:1248–1249 Writing for himself and Justice John Marshall Harlan, Fuller claimed that Chinese aliens were not "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States because they retained allegiance to the Chinese emperor.[4]:146 Based on that fact, he concluded that their children had no claim to American citizenship.[4]:146 The Wong Kim Ark decision has taken on additional significance as prominent Republican politicians, including Donald Trump, have called for the reversal of birthright citizenship.[60]:1187–1188

Personal life

Fuller was married twice, first to Calista Reynolds, whom he wed in 1858.[2]:10 They had two children together before she died of tuberculosis in 1864.[6]:199 Fuller remarried in 1866, wedding Mary Ellen Coolbaugh, the daughter of William F. Coolbaugh.[3]:1475 The couple had eight children together,[1]:904 and they remained married until her death in 1904.[7]:299 While at his summer home in Sorrento, Maine, Fuller died on July 4, 1910, of a heart attack.[16]:224 His funeral service was conducted by James E. Freeman, who later served as the Episcopal Bishop of Washington.[7]:329 Fuller was buried at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.[15]:371

During his confirmation, Fuller's mustache produced what professor Todd Peppers called "a curious national anxiety".[61]:147 No Chief Justice had ever before had a mustache, and numerous newspapers expounded on the merits of Fuller's facial hair.[61]:142 The New York Sun praised it as "uncommonly luxuriant and beautiful", while the Jackson Standard quipped that "Fuller's mustache is a good quality for a Democratic politicianit shuts his mouth."[61]:141–143 After Fuller's confirmation, the Sun switched course: it denounced his "deplorable moustaches", speculating that they would distract attorneys and "detract from the dignity" of the Court.[61]:143–144 The column triggered further debate in the nation's newspapers, with much of the press coming to Fuller's defense.[61]:144 The commentary notwithstanding, Fuller kept the mustache.[2]:23–24


A bust of Fuller, displayed at the U.S. Supreme Court

Fuller's time on the Supreme Court has often been roundly criticized[43]:109 or ignored altogether.[19]:202 His support of the widely execrated Plessy and Lochner decisions has been particularly harmful to his historical reputation.[43]:109 Many Fuller Court decisions were later overruled;[19]:205 its positions on economic regulation and labor fared particularly poorly.[18]:37 Fuller's rulings were often favorable to corporations, and some scholars have claimed that the Fuller Court was biased towards big business and against the working class.[62]:148–151 Fuller wrote few consequential majority opinions, and Yale professor John P. Frank contended that "[i]f the measure of distinction is influence on the life of our own times, Fuller's score is as close to zero as any man's could be who held his high office so long."[19]:202 In addition, as William Rehnquist – himself a chief justice – noted, Fuller's more assertive colleagues Holmes and Harlan outshadowed him in the eyes of history.[63]:796 Yet the Fuller Court's jurisprudence was also a key source of the legal academy's criticism.[18]:37 Asserting that its justices "ignored the Fundamental Law", Princeton professor Alpheus Mason argued that "[t]he tribunal Fuller headed was a body dominated by fearthe fear of populists, of socialists, and communists, of numbers, majorities and democracy."[64]:607

However, the growth of conservative legal thought in the late 20th century has brought Fuller new supporters.[43]:109 In a 1995 book, James W. Ely argued that the traditional criticisms of the Fuller Court are flawed, maintaining that its decisions were based on principle instead of partisanship.[65]:101–102 He also noted that the Fuller and his fellow justices rendered rulings that generally conformed with contemporaneous public opinion.[2]:213–214 Both Bruce Ackerman and Howard Gillman defended the Fuller Court on similar grounds, maintaining that the justices' decisions fit in with the era's zeitgeist.[66]:47 Lawrence Reed of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy wrote in 2006 that Fuller was "a model Chief Justice", favorably citing his economic jurisprudence.[67] While these revisionist ideas have become influential in the scholarly academy, they have not obtained universal support: many academics continue to favor more critical views of the Fuller Court.[68]:514 Yale professor Owen M. Fiss, himself sympathetic to the revisionists' views,[68]:513–514 noted in 1993 that "by all accounts", the Fuller Court "ranks among the worst."[69]:3 In a 1998 review of Ely's book, professor John Cary Sims argued that Fuller and his fellow justices failed to fulfill their obligation to go "against the prevailing political winds" instead of simply deferring to the majority.[65]:102–103 George Skouras, writing in 2011, rejected the ideas of Ely, Ackerman, and Gillman, agreeing instead with the Progressive argument that the Fuller Court favored corporations over vulnerable Americans.[66]:57–58 Fuller's legacy came under substantial scrutiny amidst racial unrest in 2020, with many condemning him for his vote in Plessy.[70]


In 2013, a statue of Fuller, donated by a descendant of a cousin,[71] was installed on the lawn in front of Augusta's Kennebec County Courthouse.[72] With Black Lives Matter protests and other attention in 2020, focus on the Plessy decision led to debate about the appropriateness of the statue's placement.[73] The Maine Supreme Judicial Court requested in August 2020 that the statue be removed, citing Plessy.[72] Kennebec County commissioners held a public hearing in December; a majority of participants favored the statue's removal.[70] In February 2021, the county commissioners voted unanimously to move the statue from county property, citing a desire to disassociate the county from racial segregation.[74] Commissioners appointed a committee to identify a new home for the statue.[75] In April 2021, the original donor offered to take the statue back, agreeing to pay the costs for removing it.[76] County commissioners accepted the offer; the statue will remain in front of the courthouse for up to a year while the original donor attempts to find a new location at which it can be displayed.[76]

See also


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Further reading