Willis Van Devanter holds his place in history as perhaps the most conserative judge ever to sit on the United States Supreme Court. One of the famed "Four Horsemen" who opposed virtually all of FDR's economic administration and regulation policies, Van Devanter is a classic example of early 20th Century Republican conservatism.
Born in Marion, Indiana on April 17, 1859, he earned his law degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1884. Freshly married, he took over his father's place in a law firm partnership, and when his partner chose to move west, he and his bride followed, ending up in the Wyoming Territory, where he had success both before the bar on the frontier (he even shot buffalo with Buffalo Bill Cody!) In 5 years he had built a successful practice, serving as Justice of the Peace in Cheyenne. More importantly, though, he had become an active participant in Republican politics of the area as a territorial legislator, which included a push for increased tax relief for railroads and mining companies in the area. For his efforts, he was rewarded by President Benjamin Harrison with the prestigious position of Wyoming Territory Chief Justice - at the age of 30!
In 1893 he resumed private practice, but in 1896 the call of civil service came again, and Van Devanter and his wife moved to Washintgon, D.C., where he served as assistant attorney general for the Department of the Interior. His conservative views and frontier experiences led to him refusing to recognize a number of Native American tribes applying for federal relief - a fairly popular opinion at the time.
In 1903, he was chosen by President Theoodore Roosevelt to serve on the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals, a position he filled admirably for many years. Van Devanter's primary expertise lay in the arcane federal codes and laws (a study of which he had found very profitable to own in the lawless Wyoming mountains), and he proved an indispensable fount of precedent for the Court. It was this dedication to history that impressed Roosevelt, and his conservative views which earned him approval from William Howard Taft, who named Van Devanter to the Supreme Court in 1911.
From 1911 to 1937, Van Devanter was one of the key behind-the-scenes members of the Supreme Court. Along with George Sutherland, Pierce Butler, and James Clark McReynolds, he advocated for a firm laissez-faire conservative approach to governance, and as a group they worked to achieve even greater independence from Congress. In particular he was the chief architect of the Judiciary Act of 1925, which initiated the certiorari (where only approved petitions would be heard) system of the Court's docket.
Upon the arrival of the Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt's Presidency, the "Four Horsemen" fought his economic policies tooth and nail. They voted down the National Recovery Administration, minimum wage, government regulation of labor relations, unemployment insurance, and a number of other agricultural and economic relief packages proposed by the President. This led to Roosevelt's famed "court packing" scheme, whose announcement included a dig at Van Devanter and others on the court for sticking around too long (Devanter was nearing 70.) While Van Devanter and Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes where ready to fight the President and his scheme, Associate Justice Owen Roberts eased tensions by switching his vote on a number of key issues, avoiding the controversy altogether.
Finally in 1937 Congress voted to approve a pension plan at age 70 for federal judges who retired. As transparent as the ploy by Roosevelt was, Van Devanter was ready to leave, and quit the bench, soon to be replaced by Hugo Black. He lived out his final days in D.C. and passed away February 8, 1941. He was 81.
FUN FACT: Van Devanter is widely considered one of the more well-spoken and knowledgable Justices in the Supreme Court's history, but he wrote very few opinions compared to the other Justices of his era. The reason? Writer's block. In the words of fellow justice William O. Douglas: "His ideas did not run off the end of his fingers."