- Edward Terry Sanford: A Tennessean on the U.S. Supreme Court by Stephanie L. Slater
Edward Terry Sanford served seven years as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1923-1930), on the same bench as legal luminaries and renowned justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Louis D. Brandeis, and chief justice and former U.S. president William Howard Taft. These three, together with other dominant personalities of the Taft Court, sucked the historic air out of the nation's highest courtroom such that Sanford's judicial career has seemingly paled by comparison. At the time of Sanford's unexpected death in 1930, the Harvard Law Review, which he had helped found as a Harvard University law student in the 1880s, denigrated him as merely "a sound, if not a brilliant, lawyer. . . . keeping to the old ways" (p. 308). Restrained praise in a New York Times obituary similarly termed Sanford "not a great Judge," but one who performed "useful" purposes on the high court (p. 309). Withering critique by his colleague Justice Brandeis, whose opinions Sanford, a moderate, had oftentimes supported, called him a provincial jurist who should [End Page 483] never have been appointed to the Supreme Court in the first place because of his "dull bourgeois mind" with "no spark of greatness" (p. 233).
Stephanie L. Slater's biography of Sanford, therefore, provides balance and a much-needed corrective. Slater's research has produced the first full-length biography of Sanford, who was overshadowed even in death by the passing of Chief Justice Taft the same day.
Slater builds a systematic, contextualized chronology of Sanford's personal and professional development, from his well-positioned Republican childhood in Knoxville, Tennessee, through his extensive education, and into his early legal practice protecting Gilded Age corporations. She details Sanford's respected leadership across the state and region, appointment as assistant attorney general in President Theodore Roosevelt's Department of Justice, twenty years as federal district judge for the Eastern and Middle Districts of Tennessee, and elevation at age fifty-seven to the U.S. Supreme Court. Every chapter is as rigorously supported as a legal brief but is easy to read. Slater's selections of court cases and judicial rulings showcase Sanford's intellect, values, and times.
The fifth of six Tennesseans appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Sanford served with the fourth Tennessee jurist, James Clark McReynolds, who by broad consensus was one of the most difficult, unpleasant, and mean-spirited justices of all time. Sanford, in contrast, was a kind, dignified southern gentleman who must have brought appreciated courtesy to the bench, which, in an environment of rudeness and preening, may have been interpreted as weakness.
Singularly the most educated of Supreme Court justices, Sanford completed five university degrees, graduating each time at the head of his class and earning distinction not only in the law but also in philosophy, the sciences, mathematics, engineering, foreign and ancient languages, history, and literature. He was a military cadet, valedictorian, naturalist, orator, professor, and writer of '"besetting meticulosity'" (p. 232). Born into affluence, the son of an East Tennessee business scion with holdings in every sector of the local economy, including railroads, mining, manufacturing, and utilities, Sanford had national political connections and could have been a preeminent capitalist.
Instead, he became a scholar dedicated to a puritan idealism that eschewed '"the arrogance of wealth'" and aspired to better society through service (p. 43). Conscientious, impartial, and merciful, he was a moderate "'liberal-conservative'" respected across party lines (p. 195). He aspired to '"judge righteously'" and to be open-minded to '"the small as well as the great'" (p. 150). Although nativist and racist—as were his times—Sanford understood that courts must safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable and exemplified the progressive virtues of his era. Sanford's landmark Gitlow v. New York (1925) opinion commenced the process of guaranteeing that all individual protections of the federal Bill of Rights...