Fuller, Melville W. (1833–1910)

Author:Charles W. Mccurdy

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Melville Weston Fuller, eighth Chief Justice of the United States, was appointed by GROVER CLEVELAND in 1888 and presided over the Court until his death on July 4, 1910. Fuller's twenty-two-year tenure as Chief Justice, the longest during the Court's second century, spanned one of the most significant periods of constitutional development in American history. Fuller and his associates circumscribed the rights of state criminal defendants under the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT, established an inferior legal status for residents of the new overseas colonies, articulated the infamous SEPARATE BUT EQUAL DOCTRINE, and devised a spate of other juristic strategies for avoiding interventions on behalf of black petitioners in the fields of education and VOTING RIGHTS. At the same time the FULLER COURT made so many new departures in decisions affecting the economic order that one scholar has described its work as "the new judicialism." Fuller and his colleagues invalidated the federal income tax, emasculated the Interstate Commerce Commission, put the Court's imprimatur on the labor INJUNCTION, construed the commerce clause so that the SHERMAN ANTITRUST ACT frustrated the activities of labor unions yet failed to impede the fusion of manufacturing corporations, and elaborated the concept of SUBSTANTIVE

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The vast bulk of the Fuller Court's work in constitutional law reflected the Chief Justice's constitutional understanding, the contours of which had been firmly fixed before Fuller came to the bench. Beginning in 1856, when he left his native Maine and settled in Chicago, Fuller was an active stump speaker and essayist for the Illinois Democratic party; he styled himself a disciple of Thomas Hart Benton and STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS long after both were dead. Fuller spoke often in favor of free trade, hard money, and equal opportunity in the market. "Paternalism, with its constant intermeddling with individual freedom," he wrote in 1880, "has no place in a system which rests for its strength upon the self-reliant energies of the people." But Fuller's version of the equal rights creed had no place for blacks. An exponent of a conservative naturalism that stressed the importance of homogeneous communities and local autonomy in American public life, Fuller believed that union and republican liberty were possible only if the federal government acquiesced in local racial arrangements on the same ground that it acquiesced in state laws regulating the status of women. He objected to the EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION on the ground that it was "predicated upon the idea that the President may annul the constitutions and laws of sovereign states." He claimed that the THIRTEENTH AMENDMENT and Fourteenth Amendment protected only the "common rights" of individuals against discriminatory classification. And he never ceased to insist that Congress's powers to regulate persons or property were limited, derivable only from specific grants and not from any assumption of an underlying national SOVEREIGNTY. Fuller's longest, most plaintive dissents came in the INSULAR CASES (1901), where he denied Congress's power to levy tariffs on the products of colonial possessions, and in CHAMPION V. AMES (1903), where he contended that Congress could not exercise police powers on the pretense of regulating commerce.

Fuller did not grapple with the Court's role in the American system of government following his appointment as Chief Justice. For Fuller, as for Benton, Douglas, and Cleveland, the Constitution was more than a text that allocated specific powers and secured particular rights against government. The Constitution was significant above all as the repository of values so integral to the existence of republicanism that any public official who failed to protect and defend them was guilty of a breach of trust. Consequently, Fuller conceptualized the judicial function in terms of duty rather than in terms of role; his approach to judging was instinctive rather than ratiocinative. Since he had long associated the Constitution with the Democratic party's mid-nineteenth-century dogmas, Fuller impulsively enforced those dogmas as the law of the land. It was no accident that JAMES BRADLEY THAYER published his path-breaking assessment of "The Origins and Scope of the American Doctrine of Constitutional Law" five...

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