Potter Stewart was an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, in office from 1958 until 1981. He is noted for being an important swing vote among his fellow justices and having made many contributions in the areas of criminal justice reform, civil rights, and interpretation of the Fourth Amendment.
Early Life and Education
Potter Stewart was born on January 23, 1915, while his parents were on vacation in Jackson, Michigan. His father was named James Garfield Stewart and was a prominent Republican from Cincinnati, where he served as the mayor from 1938 to 1947; he then became a justice of the Ohio Supreme Court from 1947 to 1959. Potter’s first name came from the maiden name of his mother, Harriet. Potter had two younger siblings named Zeph (who became head of the Classics department at Harvard) and Irene.
The young Stewart attended Hotchkiss School, a prestigious college preparatory boarding school in Lakeville, Connecticut and graduated in 1933. He then went on to Yale University in the graduating class of 1937; he was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon, Skull and Bones and was awarded Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest honors society for the liberal arts and sciences in the United States. He was also chairman of the Yale Daily News. He then graduated from Yale Law School in 1941; during his time there, he was a member of Phi Delta Phi and an editor of the Yale Law Journal.
Personal Life and Careers
During World War II, Stewart worked aboard oil tankers as part of his work in the United States Naval Reserves. In 1943, he also married Mary Ann Bertles, with whom he would eventually have a daughter, Harriet (Virkstis), as well as sons Potter Jr. and David.
After graduating from law school, Stewart found a position at the prestigious law firm of Dinsmore & Shohl, back in his hometown of Cincinnati. He went on to be elected to the Cincinnati City Council during the early part of the 1950s until 1954 when at 39, he was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He was there for only a few years before being elevated to the highest court in the land.
Time in the Supreme Court
In 1958, with the former Justice Harold Hitz Burton retiring, President Dwight D. Eisenhower chose Stewart to join the United States Supreme Court. After some time as a recess appointment, he was formally approved by the United States Senate in a vote of 70 to 17; all of the negative votes came from Southern Democrats.
Stewart was known to be a moderate and sedate man who preferred to arrive at conclusions that were pragmatic; this meant that he became a centrist in a court that, at the time, was sharply divided between its conservative and liberal justices. Often, he was the swing vote that decided between his colleagues’ rival opinions.
After Chief Justice Earl Warren’s retirement, many believed that Stewart was President Nixon’s first choice to replace him. Stewart; however, did not want the position, due both to the extra duties and fears of how the Senate confirmation process would affect his family. He privately asked the president to appoint someone else, and the job was thus given to Warren E. Burger.
Stewart stands out for his opinions on several issues:
Judicial Oversight and Overreaching
He preferred a strict interpretation of the Constitution and believed that his fellow justices often overreached their proper bounds when interpreting it. An example of this comes from Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the case that found artificial contraception to be a constitutionally protected right. Stewart commented that he found a law banning birth control “uncommonly silly,” but still argued that the liberal jurors’ position, that such a law violated a “Right to Privacy” in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Cause, made little sense. (Likewise, in Whalen v. Roe, he stated that a general right to privacy was not recognized by the law.) However, he voted with the majority when Roe v. Wade used the same argument to legalize abortion nationwide.
Similar were his votes in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), having to do with mandatory prayer and Bible reading, respectively, in public schools. In both cases, Stewart argued that the Constitution barred neither practice and that the court was overreaching by banning them. He was the only justice to vote that way in both cases.
Stewart quipped that the Fourth Amendment’s ban on illegal searches and seizures “protects people, not places,” as a response to creative attempts to get around it. For example, in Katz v. United States, he wrote for the majority that wiretapping a public phone booth to get evidence did violate the Fourth Amendment, since it still “stole” the defendant’s words, even if it did not affect his literal home or property.
Chimel v. California (1969) was another case, where Stewart and the majority agreed that while one could arrest a suspect within his home without a permit, law enforcement did not have a right to search anywhere but the immediate area around the suspect without probable cause. Almeida-Sanchez v. United States (1973), meanwhile, extended the Fourth Amendment protections to automobiles.
Access to the courts
Stewart was an advocate of giving people broader access to the courts. One of Stewart’s first cases was Irwin v. Dowd (1959), which hinged partly on the question of whether a state could remove one’s right to an appeal as punishment for the defendant escaping from custody, and specifically, if the federal government could give habeas corpus in defiance of the state. Stewart voted with the majority in favor of this.
In general, Stewart believed that the right to the court was based on injury. Hence,
in Sierra Club v. Morton, he and the majority denied the Sierra Club’s right to sue a ski resort because they could not prove that the resort harmed them in any way. However,
in United States v. Students Challenging Regulatory Agency Procedures (SCRAP), he wrote that three students had the right to sue the government over plans for highway construction because in this case, they were suing on behalf of the environment, which would be injured.
Stewart made several notable rulings during the Civil Rights Movement. Shuttlesworth v. City of Birmingham, for example, protects demonstrators or protestors from being charged under anti-loitering laws.
Likewise, 1968’s Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. ruled that it was illegal to refuse to sell, buy or lease to someone on the basis of their race. He also ruled in Runyon v. McCrary that a private school open to all white students could not deny blacks entry as well.
Retirement and Death
Stewart announced his retirement on June 18, 1981 and stepped down early the following month. His successor, Sandra Day O’Connor, was the first female Supreme Court justice. Stewart said that he wished to spend more time with his family while he was still in good health.
He died December 7, 1985, from a stroke near his New Hampshire vacation home. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
After his retirement, Stewart appeared on a thirteen episode educational program called The Constitution: That Delicate Balance, hosted by Fred W. Friendly.
Upon his death, author Bob Woodward claimed that Stewart was the inside source that he used to write about the early years of the Burger Court in his book The Brethren.