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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,106


This is the grave of Charles Whittaker.

Born in 1901 on a farm outside of Troy, Kansas, there was little about Whittaker’s youth that suggested where he would end up. His father ran the farm and his mother was a teacher. In 1917, she died and he dropped out of school at that point. Seemed like he would probably just be a farmer like his dad. In fact, that’s what he did for the next several years, while also becoming a good hunter and trapper. But he had a hobby–reading true crime. Usually such a hobby leads to absolutely nothing. But for Whittaker, it made him interested in the law. So in 1920, he applied to a night school run by what is today the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. Of course he didn’t have a high school education, so initially the law school was like, uh, no. But then he personally pleaded with the president of the school and said president was impressed enough to allow him in once he finished his high school degree.

Whittaker took his studies seriously. It took him awhile to get through the program. He had to work during the day after all to support himself. But by the time he finished the degree in 1924, he was a pretty good lawyer and it was not hard for him to get a job. He started as an office boy at a local Kansas City corporate law firm and then he rose quickly in there. Now, you might think that growing up pretty poor might make Whittaker interested in the causes of the poor, but you would be wrong. He became a huge corporate hack, particularly working for the railroads. Did I mention he was a committed Republican? Well, you probably didn’t need to read that to know it.

As a corporate lawyer, Whittaker wasn’t really that interesting. But by 1953, after twenty years of Democratic Supreme Court nominations that were at least nominally decent (despite Truman just naming his buddies), Republicans were ready to strike a new blow against workers and for corporate power. So when Stanley Reed retired in 1957, Eisenhower wanted nothing more than a corporate hack to replace him. Said corporate hack was Charles Whittaker. That Whittaker had gone to law school with Harry Truman didn’t matter, but did cause amusement. In fact, Eisenhower had tapped Whittaker for a rapid rise as soon as he took office. In 1954, he named the corporate lawyer to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri. Then, two years later, Eisenhower named him to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals. He was only in that job for ten months before Eisenhower tapped him again. Like most nominations in this period, Whittaker’s nomination was approved by unanimous Senate consent.

Whittaker is far from the most memorable Supreme Court justice. He was a swing vote, but he was also in way over his head. He was considered a weak justice by everyone at the time, which did give him a certain power since he was persuadable but also meant that no one really respected him. He also found the work load overwhelming. He realized himself that he was not really qualified to be around people such as Earl Warren and it bothered him. Meanwhile, he had trouble actually making decisions about his vote. In 1962, Baker v. Carr was before the Court. This was the very important redistricting case from Tennessee, as the state had not engaged in any redistricting since 1901. The case did not really reshape Tennessee’s districts but it did establish federal jurisdiction over the issue that then laid the groundwork for future cases that would establish the principle of equal apportionment on a one person, one vote basis. So cute to think the Supreme Court would rule in this way. Impossible to imagine today and I am sure Alito and Thomas would love to get their hands on revising this ruling. In any case, Whittaker could not handle not knowing how to vote here. In fact, he didn’t vote. Instead, he suffered a mental breakdown and resigned from the Court shortly after. Kennedy replaced him with Byron White, a vastly superior justice. In fact, Whittaker was such a bad justice that his own biography is titled Failing Justice.

Now, retired justices get to be special senior figures. But they aren’t supposed to work in the legal profession for private clients. Whittaker was a very bad Supreme Court justice but he was a good corporate hack. He liked that better. So in 1965, he gave up his status so he become the general counsel for General Motors. Some of this went back to his political philosophy. Since he basically hated the idea of any kind of government welfare, it bugged him to be getting a pension when he could still work. Of course, it didn’t hurt that GM was going to pay him a lot more than he got from the federal government. He also then got to speak out about current issues without any saying he should above such statements. And by this time, Whittaker was very, very cranky. He hated Martin Luther King and the entire civil rights movement. He saw King as basically an anarchist overturning the American system of government and he wanted the civil rights movement absolutely crushed. He also hated Earl Warren and all the cases that it decided that would expand rights for Americans. I mean, if you don’t like all this, you could have just stayed on the Court, but hey, you do you ya old crank. What really made him mad is that he had been the deciding vote on a number of 5-4 decisions that the new Court quickly overturned, often white White providing the key vote. He also despised the street protests of the Vietnam era. He wrote a piece for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (that’s got to have some real gold in it) urging protestors to use the courts instead of the streets for their protests. Something about direct action protest really bothered Whittaker.

Whittaker was active in his corporate hackery and right-wing crankiness until he died, in 1973, of a ruptured abdominal aneurysm. He was 72 years old.

Charles Whittaker is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Kansas City, Missouri.

If you would like this series to visit other bad Supreme Court justices, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Alfred Moore is in Winnabow, North Carolina and the universally loathed James McReynolds is in Elkton, Kentucky. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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