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Wiley B. Rutledge Jr.
A stalwart defender of civil liberties, Associate Justice Wiley B. Rutledge Jr., sat on the U.S.
Supreme Court for six years during the transitional New Deal era. Rutledge was a distinguished law professor and dean who became a judge through his support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1939 Roosevelt named him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and four years later to the Supreme Court. From 1943 until his death in 1949, Rutledge championed the rights of minorities and unpopular groups.
Born in Cloverport, Kentucky, on July 20, 1894, Rutledge was the son of a fundamentalist Baptist minister. His father, Wiley Sr., rode the backwaters of Kentucky preaching hellfire and brimstone, often with his son in tow. By his teens, however, Rutledge had left for the University of Wisconsin where he immersed himself in debate, classical literature, and ancient languages, earning a B.A. in 1914.
In his twenties, tuberculosis and financial trouble forced Rutledge to postpone the legal education he desired. Between 1915 and 1920, he supported himself and his wife, Annabel Person, by teaching high school in Indiana, New Mexico, and finally in Colorado, where he enrolled in a full-time law program at the state university. By 1922 he had earned his law degree, and immediately accepted a job with a Boulder firm. But he left practice two years later in order to embark on a fifteen-year long career as a law professor. He taught at three universities, promoted modern teaching methods, and ultimately served as dean at Washington University (1930–1935) and the Iowa College of Law (1935–1939). It was during these later years, while engaging in debate over local and national issues, that he developed a reputation as a champion of the underdog.
Rutledge was an ardent supporter of President Roosevelt's New Deal, a series of legislative reforms designed to pull the nation out of economic depression. Yet the U.S. Supreme Court struck down one after another of the president's programs. Roosevelt then announced his controversial plan to reorganize the federal judicial system—the so-called court-packing plan that would have filled even the Supreme Court with pro-Roosevelt justices. Rutledge backed it. In 1939 the president appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and in 1943 he appointed Rutledge to the Supreme Court.
Rutledge consistently upheld the rights of the individual, including the rights to a jury trial, to practice religion freely, to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and not to suffer cruel and unusual punishment. In his concurring opinion in Schneiderman v. United States, 320 U.S. 118, 63 S. Ct. 1333, 87 L. Ed. 1796 (1943), he voted to restore citizenship to an immigrant who, twelve years after his naturalization, had been targeted for deportation by the Justice Department because of membership in the Communist Party. In Yamashita v. Styer, 327 U.S. 1, 66 S. Ct. 340, 90 L. Ed. 499 (1946), Rutledge dissented from the denial of habeas corpus relief to Japanese general Yamashita Tomoyuki, who had been sentenced to death for war crimes on the basis of hearsay evidence.
Rutledge regularly joined the opinions of Justices Hugo L. Black, frank murphy, and William O. Douglas. He worked exhaustively, and, in the opinion of some of his brethren on the Court, too much. He died on September 10, 1949, in York, Maine, at the age of 54.
Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. 1969. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions. New York: Chelsea House.