December 29, 1971 – Death of Supreme Court Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan II

John Marshall Harlan II was born on May 20, 1899 in Chicago, Illinois, and was named after his grandfather, who was an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court form 1877 to 1911.

Harlan went to Princeton where he earned a Rhodes Scholarship to study law at the University of Oxford. After returning home, he enrolled in New York Law School, getting his degree in 1924 while apprenticing at a New York law firm. His mentor there appointed him as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He returned to private practice after 1930.

He returned to public service in 1951 and was nominated by President Eisenhower to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1954. A year later, in January 1955, President Eisenhower nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court, to take the seat of the recently deceased Justice Robert H. Jackson.

The Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States (Artist: Gardener Cox)

The Oyez site reports that Congressional leaders, especially those from the South, were worried about the potential of a liberal justice being appointed to the Court following the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Therefore, Harlan appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee prior to his confirmation in order to respond to questions about his judicial philosophy. This had never been done before, but it set a precedent for every future Supreme Court nomination.

Harlan was confirmed on March 17, 1955 by a 71-11 vote and took office that same day. (Nine of the eleven senators who voted against his confirmation were southerners who were deeply concerned that Harlan would support desegregation and other civil rights initiatives.)

While Justice Harlan was considered to be a member of the conservative wing of the court, and someone who believed in a limited federal judiciary, he did regularly vote to expand civil rights. He voted with the majority to compel public officials to desegregate Arkansas public schools (Cooper v. Aaron) and joined the unanimous decision to end the ban on interracial marriages (Loving v. Virginia).

By the late 1960s, Harlan’s health started to deteriorate, beginning with his eyesight. He retired from the Court on September 23, 1971 and died of cancer at age 72 on December 29, 1971, on this day in history.

After Harlan’s retirement, President Nixon appointed William Rehnquist to replace him.

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