Learned Hand was a United States judge sometimes called “the greatest judge never to sit on the Supreme Court.”
He served on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York and later the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Hand majored in philosophy at Harvard College and graduated with honors from Harvard Law School. After a short career as a lawyer in New York, he was appointed at the age of 37 as a Federal District Judge in Manhattan in 1909. His decisions soon won him a reputation for craftsmanship and authority. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge promoted Hand to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which he went on to lead as the Senior Circuit Judge (later retitled Chief Judge) from 1939 until his semi-retirement in 1951. Scholars have recognized the Second Circuit under Hand as one of the finest appeals courts in the country’s history. Friends and admirers often lobbied for Hand’s promotion to the Supreme Court, but, much to Hand’s own disappointment, his political past made a confirmation unlikely. Nevertheless, according to a 2004 book by legal scholar Geoffrey Stone, Hand has been quoted more often by legal scholars and by the Supreme Court of the United States than any other lower-court judge.
One of Hand’s law clerks, Thomas Ehrlich, wrote in a 1994 remembrance about what it was like to work with Judge Hand. He said that law clerks never did any writing for him, except to suggest changes in drafts. Instead, the clerks served another purpose:
…our routine went something like this. After we each read the briefs in a case, he would ask me to argue one side. He would urge opposing view. Sometimes, we would then switch sides. In all events, the Judge would move back and forth, making arguments and countering them in the process of refining and sharpening his views.” (“Judge Learned Hand” by Thomas Ehrlich, 20 Litigation 4, 1994, 35)
Hand believed in the protection of free speech and in bold legislation to address social and economic problems. But he felt strongly that judges should not deny the constitutionality of acts of Congress. Congress was comprised of the people’s elected representatives, and therefore it is right that they choose how we are to be governed. One wonders if he would have felt differently in recent times, when election has become so much more a function of access to assets. One also wonders what the law would have looked like now, had he been on the Supreme Court; he believed passionately, according to Ehrlich, “that disinterestedness was the essential quality of a good judge.”
Hand had a “fun” side, being fond of toys, jokes, and of singing. This rare video provides a sample of his voice.