Fuller, Melville Weston

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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Melville Weston Fuller served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1888 to 1910. Fuller's term as chief justice was marked by many decisions that protected big business from federal laws that sought to regulate interstate commerce. In addition, the Fuller Court's restrictive reading of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT led it to render the infamous separate but equal racial SEGREGATION decision in PLESSY V. FERGUSON, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256 (1896).

Fuller was born February 11, 1833, in Augusta, Maine. He grew up in the household of his maternal grandfather, the chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Following his graduation from Bowdoin College in 1853, he apprenticed in his uncles' law offices and briefly attended Harvard Law School. Even though he did not receive a law degree, he was the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court to serve with significant academic legal preparation. Fuller moved to Chicago in 1856 and established a law practice. An active member of the DEMOCRATIC PARTY, he served in the Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1861 and for one term (1862?64) in the state house of representatives. He attended as a delegate every national Democratic convention between 1864 and 1880.

Fuller withdrew from day-to-day politics after he married Mary Ellen Coolbaugh, the daughter of a prominent Chicago banker, in 1866. His law practice thrived because of this family connection, and with his new wealth, he invested in real estate. Fuller specialized in appellate practice, appearing before the U.S. Supreme Court many times.

Fuller's appointment to the Court in 1888 was driven by presidential politics and his long service to the Democratic Party. President GROVER CLEVELAND, a Democrat who believed that it would be essential to win the state of Illinois as part of his re-election bid, nominated Fuller as chief justice to replace MORRISON R. WAITE, who had died in March 1888. Fuller and Cleveland were friends and political colleagues. At the time, the press described Fuller as "the most obscure man ever appointed Chief Justice" (Baker 1991, 360). Others were more unkind, dubbing him "the fifth best lawyer from the City of Chicago" (review of The Chief Justiceship of Melville W. Fuller 1996, 109).

Fuller's 22-year term as chief justice was distinguished by his skillful handling of often contentious Court conferences. Justice OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, JR. thought highly of...

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