Harlan, John Marshall

Harlan, John Marshall '20 (1899-1971), was the eighth Princeton graduate to serve as Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Public service was a hallmark of his family. His Quaker forebear, George Harlan, came to America from Durham, England, in 1687 and eight years later became governor of Delaware. His great-grandfather James Harlan was attorney general of Kentucky and a United States congressman from that state in the 1830s. His grandfather, for whom he was named, served from 1877 to 1911 as a Justice of the Supreme Court. He is best remembered as the sole dissenter from the Court's 1896 declaration of the so-called ``separate but equal'' doctrine in defense of racial segregation, which he denounced because, he said, ``our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.'' An uncle, Richard D. Harlan 1881, the first Princetonian in the family, was president of Lake Forest College, and another uncle, James S. Harlan 1883, was attorney general of Puerto Rico. His father, John Maynard Harlan 1884, practiced law and served as a city alderman in Chicago.

John Harlan '20 was outstanding in the student life of his generation, serving as chairman of The Daily Princetonian, chairman of the Senior Council, and president of his class in junior and senior years. After graduating with honors in 1920, he spent three years as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, taking an A.B. with a ``first'' in jurisprudence in 1923.

On his return from England, he began work with one of the nation's leading law firms while studying at the New York Law School. He earned his LL.B. in 1924, was admitted to the New York bar in 1925, and became a partner in his firm in 1931. In the late 1920s, as special assistant attorney general of New York state, he investigated the Queens County sewer scandals and helped convict a former Queens borough president of conspiracy. In 1940 he and a partner represented the New York Board of Higher Education in its unsuccessful attempt to retain Bertrand Russell on the faculty of the City College of New York.

During World War II he served as a colonel in the United States Army Air Force, in charge of the Operations Analysis Section of the Eighth Bomber Command in England. He was awarded the American Legion of Merit and the Belgian and French Croix de Guerre.

In the early 1950s, as chief counsel for the newly created New York State Crime Commission, Harlan helped investigate waterfront rackets in New York City and illegal gambling activities in several other communities. Later, he was one of four attorneys who successfully defended several members of the duPont family in a federal antitrust suit.

On nomination of President Eisenhower, he became a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in March 1954 and associate justice of the Supreme Court a year later.

Harlan was called a ``lawyer's judge'' as well as a ``judge's judge.'' His opinions were so closely reasoned and so clearly written that lawyers often turned to him first for a succinct, fair statement of the issues. In reviewing his career, newspapers spoke of him as the court's conservative conscience.

He was a strong believer in states' rights and an ardent defender of the rights of the individual. When the Court laid down its one-man, one-vote rule for state legislatures in 1964 he dissented, because he believed the vitality of the American political system was weakened by reliance on the judiciary for political reform; ``the Constitution,'' he said, ``is not a panacea for every blot upon the public welfare.'' But he frequently sided with the liberals and sometimes wrote the majority opinion for them. In 1955 he joined in the unanimous opinion directing the district courts to take such action as was necessary to bring about, ``with all deliberate speed,'' the end of racial segregation in the public schools, which the Court had declared unconstitutional the previous year. In 1971 he wrote the majority opinion that found that wearing, in a courthouse corridor, a jacket bearing an obscene protest against the draft was constitutionally protected free speech.

Harlan was admired by his associates for his integrity, his modesty, his gentle humor and, in his last years (when he wrote some of his most notable opinions), for the courage with which he met the challenge of seriously failing eyesight. Among the many tributes paid him after his death, at the age of seventy-two, was one by one of his first law clerks, Harvard Law School Professor Paul M. Bator (Princeton class of 1951), who said in part:

``The private virtues -- love of truth; kindness; respect for others; the kind of decency and straightforwardness which only a firm self-respect can produce; an utter honesty and simplicity of spirit, combined with what the Psalmist cried out for, a heart of flesh rather than a heart of stone -- these were the qualities that transfigured Justice Harlan's public acts.

``Nothing is more fashionable in our society than to serve the cause of democracy by keeping a jealous scrutiny lest others exceed their power. Nothing is less common than one who is equally scrupulous about his own. Justice Harlan was one of these rare public men. For him fidelity to law was fidelity to the whole law, every day and not every other day, fidelity not only to those rules which define other people's power but also those which limited his own. . . . Maybe his most enduring legacy will be this, that when the dark night of cynicism and hopelessness is on us, we can say, yes, fidelity to law is possible, is worthwhile, is real.''


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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