Colleagues and contemporary observers agreed that Willis Van Devanter was enormously influential during his twenty-six years on the Supreme Court. Chief Justice WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT, who as President appointed him in 1911, described his Wyoming associate as "my mainstay," "the most valuable man in our court," and the Justice who had "more influence" than any other. Justice LOUIS D. BRANDEIS, Van Devanter's ideological antipode, praised him as a "master of formulas that decided cases without creating precedents." Harvard's Professor FELIX FRANKFURTER aptly dubbed him Taft's "Lord Chancellor."
Van Devanter's backstage prominence contrasted vividly with his well-known "pen paralysis." He rarely spoke for the Court in major constitutional cases. During his tenure, Van Devanter averaged only fourteen written opinions each year; during the 1930s he averaged only three a year.
Van Devanter came to the Court after a career in Wyoming law and politics, followed by five years in the Interior Department. President THEODORE ROOSEVELT appointed him to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1903; eight years later, President Taft elevated him to the Supreme Court. Taft, himself a former circuit judge, prized judicial experience as a criterion for appointment to the Supreme Court.
Although Van Devanter was one of the conservative "Four Horsemen" of the NEW DEAL era, two of his earlier opinions aligned him with the "liberal nationalistic" wing of the Court. In the second of the EMPLOYERS ' LIABILITY CASES (1913) he upheld a federal statute holding railroads liable for injuries suffered by workers engaged in INTERSTATE COMMERCE. He boldly generalized about the sweep of the COMMERCE CLAUSE, describing the commerce power as "complete in itself," but he added that it did not extend to matters that had no "real or substantial relation to some part of such commerce." The previous year, in Southern Railway Co. v. United States (1911), he had written for the Court to sustain federal railroad safety legislation in a case involving an intrastate railroad which carried goods that had passed through interstate commerce. Again, Van Devanter found the commerce power plenary and operative if an intrastate matter affected interstate commerce. The decision anticipated Justice CHARLES EVANS HUGHES'S consideration of intrastate effects on the commerce power in the Shreveport Case (Houston, East and West Texas Railroad Company v. United States,...