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Willis Van Devanter

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Title: Willis Van Devanter  
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Collection: 1859 Births, 1941 Deaths, American People of Dutch Descent, Burials at Rock Creek Cemetery, George Washington University Faculty, Indiana Lawyers, Judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, Members of the Wyoming Territorial Legislature, People from Marion, Indiana, United States Court of Appeals Judges Appointed by Theodore Roosevelt, United States Federal Judges Appointed by William Howard Taft, United States Supreme Court Justices, University of Cincinnati College of Law Alumni, Wyoming Lawyers, Wyoming Republicans, Wyoming Supreme Court Justices
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Willis Van Devanter

Willis Van Devanter
Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court
In office
December 16, 1910 – June 2, 1937
Nominated by William Howard Taft
Preceded by Edward Douglass White
Succeeded by Hugo Black
Personal details
Born (1859-04-17)April 17, 1859
Marion, Indiana
Died February 8, 1941(1941-02-08) (aged 81)
Washington, D.C.
Spouse(s) Delice Burhans
Religion Episcopal [1]

Willis Van Devanter (April 17, 1859 – February 8, 1941) was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, January 3, 1911 to June 2, 1937.


  • Early life and career 1
  • Federal judicial service 2
    • Supreme Court tenure 2.1
  • Retirement and final years 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7

Early life and career

Born in Marion, Indiana, he received a LL.B. from the Cincinnati Law School in 1881. He was a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and the Knights of Pythias. After three years private practice in Marion, he moved to the Wyoming Territory where he served as city attorney of Cheyenne, Wyoming and a member of the territorial legislature. At the age of 30, he was appointed chief judge of the territorial court.[2] Upon statehood, he served as Chief Justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court for four days,.[3] and again took up private practice for seven years, including much work for the Union Pacific and other railroads.

In 1896 he represented the state of Wyoming before the U.S. Supreme Court in Ward v. Race Horse 163 U.S. 504 (1896). At issue was a state poaching charge for hunting out of season, and its purported conflict with an Indian treaty that allowed the activity. The Native Americans won in the U.S. Federal District Court; the judgment was revised on appeal to the Supreme Court by a 7-1 majority.[3][4][5]

In the summer and fall of 1896, Van Devanter was afflicted with The George Washington University Law School from 1897 to 1903.

Federal judicial service

On February 4, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt nominated Van Devanter to a seat on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals created by 32 Stat. 791. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on February 18, 1903, and received his commission the same day.

In 1910, William Howard Taft elevated him to the Supreme Court. Taft nominated Van Devanter on December 12, 1910 to the Associate Justice seat vacated by Edward D. White. Three days later, Van Devanter was confirmed by the United States Senate on December 15, 1910,[2] and received his commission the following day. Van Devanter assumed senior status on June 2, 1937, one of the first Supreme Court Justices to do so. Although no longer on the Court at that point, he technically remained available to hear cases until his death.

Supreme Court tenure

On the court, he made his mark in opinions on

Legal offices
Preceded by
New seat
Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
Succeeded by
Walter Inglewood Smith
Preceded by
Edward Douglass White
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
January 3, 1911 – June 2, 1937
Succeeded by
Hugo Black

External links

  • MacMahon, Paul (1990). Island Odyssey A History of the Sans Souci Area of Georgian Bay. Toronto:  
  • Cushman, Clare (2001). The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1995 (2nd ed.). ( 
  • Frank, John P. (1995). Friedman, Leon; Israel, Fred L., eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions.  
  • Hall, Kermit L., ed. (1992). The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.  
  • Martin, Fenton S.; Goehlert, Robert U. (1990). The U.S. Supreme Court: A Bibliography. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Books.  
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. (1994). The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary. New York:  

Further reading

  1. ^
  2. ^ a b Willis Van Devanter at Supreme Court Historical Society.
  3. ^ a b c d Made in Wyoming, Willis VanDevanter.
  4. ^ Ward vs. Race Horse, syllabus courtesy of
  5. ^ Ward vs. Race Horse, full text opinion courtesy of
  6. ^ a b c Ball, Howard. Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. Oxford University Press. 2006. ISBN 0-19-507814-4. Page 89.
  7. ^ citation needed; "pen paralysis" means writer's cramp
  8. ^ a b William Van devanter at
  9. ^ Ball, Howard (1996). Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 89.  
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b Oliver Wendell Holmes: law and the inner self, G. Edward White pg. 469
  12. ^ McKenna, Marian Cecilia. Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Constitutional War: The Court-Packing Crisis of 1937. New York: Fordham University, 2002, p. 35-36, 335-336.
  13. ^ Ball, Howard. Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. Oxford University Press. 2006. ISBN 0-19-507814-4. Page 93.
  14. ^ , YearbookHere Lies the Supreme Court: Gravesites of the JusticesChristensen, George A. (1983) at the Wayback Machine (archived September 3, 2005) Supreme Court Historical Society at Internet Archive.
  15. ^ See also, Christensen, George A., Here Lies the Supreme Court: Revisited, Journal of Supreme Court History, Volume 33 Issue 1, Pages 17 - 41 (19 Feb 2008), University of Alabama.
  16. ^ Willis Van Devanter memorial at Find a Grave.
  17. ^ " MacMahon, Paul." Island Odyssey A History of the Sans Souci Area of Georgian Bay. Toronto: D. W. Friesen& Sons Ltd., 1990, Pages:236,237


See also

Van Devanter's personal and judicial papers are archived at the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, where they are available for research.

At the turn of the century, William Van Devanter purchased Pate Island in the Woods Bay area of Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada. He owned it until it was sold about 1939 to Senator Dennis. T. Flynn of Oaklahoma City. He and his wife Dolly enjoyed their summers in an area that was a favorite summer retreat for members of the American legal fraternity. William Van Devanter was a keen sportsman who enjoyed hunting and fishing.[17]

He died in Washington, D.C., and was buried there in Rock Creek Cemetery. His gravesite is marked by "a stark 'VAN DEVANTER' — nothing else" which tops the family plot.[14][15] However, his grave does have his name and dates on the stone.[16]

Van Devanter retired as a Supreme Court Justice on May 18, 1937,[6] after Congress voted full pay for justices over seventy who retired.[10] He acknowledged that he might have retired five years earlier due to illness, if not for his concern about New Deal legislation, and that he depended upon his salary for sustenance.[3] In 1932, five years prior to Van Devanter's retirement, Congress had halved Supreme Court pensions.[11] Congress had temporarily restored them to full pay in February 1933,[11] only to see them halved again the next month by the Economy Act.[12] Van Devanter was replaced by Justice Hugo Black, appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.[13]

Van Devanter's former residence in Washington, D.C.

Retirement and final years

Van Devanter had chronic writer's block[7]—even characterized as "pen paralysis"[8]—and, as a result, he wrote fewer opinions than any of his brethren, averaging three a term during his last decade on the Court.[9] He rarely wrote on constitutional issues.[8] However, he was widely respected as an expert on judicial procedure. He was largely responsible for the 1925 legislation that allowed the Supreme Court greater control over its own docket through the certiorari procedure.


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