Today, the first Monday in October, marks the start of a new term for the U.S. Supreme Court. Until 1935, the court had no building of its own, instead meeting inside the Capitol. Only in the depths of the Great Depression, during the era of grand make-work projects, did Congress allocate money to build the Supreme Court its own building.
On its first floor is the Great Hall, where visitors can peruse displays dedicated to Supreme Court history. It was there that I came upon a larger than life size bust of a balding man. It was carved from white marble, imitating the style with which the ancient Greeks and Romans celebrated their gods and heroes. But this massive head belonged not to Zeus or Hercules, Julius Caesar or Cicero, but to Jimmy Byrnes.
Byrnes was serving as a senator from South Carolina when President Franklin Roosevelt tapped him for the Supreme Court in 1941. He possessed in spades the two attributes all presidents look for in Supreme Court nominees: political reliability (he was a committed New Dealer) and confirmability (he was popular among his colleagues in the Senate).
But the backslapping politico wasn’t well-suited for the cloistered life of a Supreme Court justice. Less than 16 months after joining the court he quit to take up high-level administrative positions in the executive branch, leading the Office of War Mobilization during World War II. By all accounts he was a gifted administrator. His biography, by David Robertson, is titled “Sly and Able.”
After the war, Byrnes became governor of South Carolina. When the case of Brown v. Board of Education, challenging the segregation of public schools and the entire system of organized racism known as Jim Crow, came before the Supreme Court, he returned to his old haunts, personally lobbying his former colleagues on the court to uphold segregation.
His lobbying efforts failed. The justices ruled unanimously that the federal courts could finally start enforcing the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment, a mere 85 years after its passage. Robertson reports that Byrnes responded by meeting “with other southern governors, most frequently with Gov. Herman Talmadge of Georgia, to plan a strategy of ‘massive resistance’ to the Brown decision, challenging its implementation at every opportunity in local courts and setting up church-sponsored schools to encourage the withdrawal of white students from the public systems.”
Many consider Brown v. Board of Education to be the Supreme Court’s finest hour. But there in the court’s own museum, a man who devoted the final years of his public life to subverting it, seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the court itself, is celebrated as a hero or god.
In the past few years, many municipalities across the South have engaged in public soul-searching about displays of the Confederate flag and memorials. The generals whose statues are being removed fought against the United States. Worse, they did so to facilitate the oppression of their fellow humans. Still, many of them deserve respect for their bravery on the battlefield. By contrast, there was nothing brave about the “massive resistance” of Byrnes, Talmadge, George Wallace, Orville Faubus, Harry Byrd and their ilk.
Byrnes’ enshrinement in “America’s Temple of Justice,” as the Supreme Court’s website describes the building, isn’t its only anomaly.
Currently on display is a group portrait of the court of 1876, including bushy-bearded Stephen J. Field. He took a $25,000 bribe to fix a breach of promise case against a Nevada silver baron. (Details can be found in “The Infamous King of the Comstock” by Michael J. Makley.)
Field’s bodyguard killed one of the justice’s political opponents, an assassination Field covered up by lying to police. While sitting as a justice, he sought the Democratic Party nomination for president in 1880 and again in 1884. His supporters boosted his campaign with the claim that all his rulings had shown him to be a true friend of southern whites, revealing that he decided cases based on calculations of personal political ambition. (Brown v. Board of Education marked the beginning of the effort to eradicate Field’s influence from our constitutional law.) He was, in short, an unethical judge and racist crook. Today he gazes out complacently from the walls of America’s Temple of Justice, his image reproduced on the Supreme Court website.
The municipal authorities of dozens of southern cities, large and small, have shown a greater understanding of American history and greater commitment to American ideals than the curators of the Supreme Court’s museum to itself. As long as the court continues to celebrate such men as Byrnes and Field, it shares in their disgrace.
Joel Jacobsen is an author who recently retired from a 29-year legal career. If there are topics you would like to see covered in future columns, please write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.