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Today in Legal History: Credit Mobilier Scandal

On February 18, 1873, the House of Representatives voted to find Oakes Ames (R-Mass.) guilty of bribery. Though the House contemplated ejecting him from office, Ames was instead censured. Too many other representatives had stock in Ames’ company, Credit Mobilier.

Oakes Ames had bought into a company called Credit Mobilier to finance the building of the railroads. Abraham Lincoln had encouraged him to do so; it was of national importance to get stable transport to the West. Ames continued to serve in Congress and recruited many of his colleagues to invest. It was a great investment as returns were running at 90% in 1867.

Credit Mobilier was in charge of building the Union Pacific Railroad, but did so at an incredibly inflated rate. When Credit Mobilier wasn’t charging twice as much as it cost to build, the company would “build” the same section of railroad more than once. It is estimated that Credit Mobilier made over $23 million while the railroad was left barely solvent. It was the Enron of its time.

Congress tried to get some of the money back by passing legislation (17 Stat. 509) to file suit. Eventually, the case made it to the Supreme Court. In U.S. v. Union Pac. R. Co., 98 U.S. 569 (1878), the Supreme Court decided that the above mentioned legislation was unconstitutional and that the government could not collect on the bonds made for the railroads until they matured. According to the Supreme Court, the railroads had been built, so Credit Mobilier was under no obligation beyond the contract.

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Today in Legal History: Swiss Neutrality Recognized by League of Nations

The League of Nations officially recognized Switzerland as neutral on February 13, 1920. This was not a new position for the Swiss; the Treaty of Westphalia did the same, as did the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Ironically, Switzerland did not join the United Nations until 2002, although it had been actively involved prior to joining.

Switzerland is not the only neutral UN member; Austria, Finland, Ireland, and Sweden are also formally neutral. Permanent neutrality prevents the country from participating in conflicts and creates rights and duties in peacetime as well. A neutral country’s own territory and airspace are respected, and it is also forbidden to help or harm a belligerent – even if the same treatment is accorded for both sides. A neutral country may not be involved in an armed conflict as a peacekeeper; it may only take arms for its own self-defense.

Switzerland took on the position of neutrality for a pragmatic reason. As Switzerland borders Germany, France, and Italy, it was at high risk of invasion and perpetual warfare. Neutrality allowed Switzerland to keep its independence.

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Today in Legal History: Dawes Severalty Act Signed, Tribes Further Dispossessed

On February 8, 1887, President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Act, dividing up tribal lands into plots for individuals to farm.  The effect of the Act was to weaken tribes, break up traditional families, and put Indian lands into non-Indian hands.  Under the Act, farmers did not get ownership of the land for 25 years; if the farm failed, lands would be transferred back to the government and sold at auction.  In the meantime, the farmer could not sell any of his allotted 160 acres.  The Dawes Act was abolished in 1934 under Franklin Roosevelt.

More information is available at:

  • The Assault on Indian Tribalism: the General Allotment Law (Dawes act) of 1887 Wilcomb E. Washburn (Law Library – 4th floor @ KF5660.W38)
  • PBS
  • History.com
  • The Dawes Act and the Allotment of Indian lands D.S. Otis (Law Library – 4th floor @ KF5660.O85)

 

Today in Legal History: The Switch in Time that Saved Nine: Roosevelt Announces Court Packing Plan, February 5, 1937

By 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was becoming increasingly frustrated after the Supreme Court struck down several pieces of “New Deal” legislation intended to alleviate the worst problems of the depression.  FDR felt the best response was simply to make the current Supreme Court majority into a minority.  There is no constitutional provision for how many justices can sit at one time.

The court packing plan involved adding a justice for every justice over the age of 70 ½, which at the time meant six justices (Supreme Court Justices cannot be forced to retire).  Roosevelt announced the plan in one of his fireside chats.  This created an outcry and was met with resistance by Congress and the press.

Shortly after the court packing plan was announced, the Supreme Court unexpectedly changed voting patterns in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937) and then again, in Carter v. Carter Coal Co, 298 U.S. 238 (1936).  This change became known as the “switch in time that saved nine.”

More information is available at:

  • FDR’s Fireside Chat
  • Nine Men; a Political History of the Supreme Court from 1790 to 1955 Fred Rodell (1955) (Law Library 4th Floor @ KF8748.R63)
  • The Supreme Court and the Presidency Robert Scigliano (1971) (Law Library 4th Floor @ KF8748.S34)

 

Today in Legal History: First session of first Supreme Court

The first session of the U.S. Supreme Court met on February 1st, 1790. President George Washington’s inaugural nominations were John Jay (Chief Justice), John Rutledge, William Cushing, John Blair, Robert Harrison, and James Wilson. The Court got off to a faltering start. Robert Harrison refused the nomination, John Jay was abroad attending diplomatic duties during much of his tenure, John Blair’s attendance at court was sporadic because of poor health, and finally John Rutledge, managed to sabotage his nomination to succeed John Jay as Chief Justice with an importune speech that cost him the support of many in Washington’s administration. The fact that he never attended a formal day of court probably didn’t do his nomination any favors either. The inaugural session of the Court was held at the Royal Exchange Building in New York. Unfortunately only Jay, Wilson and Cushing managed to show up. The new Court was hamstrung until Blair arrived the next day, thereby establishing the quorum necessary for conducting business. No cases were heard during that first session, it primarily involved admitting attorneys to practice before it. The inaugural session of the Supreme Court ended on February 10th, 1790. The new Supreme Court continued on its wobbly trajectory until John Marshall became Chief Justice and Marbury v. Madison was decided in 1803, establishing the Court’s power.

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Today in Legal History: Brandeis Nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court

On January 28, 1916, President Wilson nominated “the people’s attorney,”  Louis D. Brandeis, to the Supreme Court. Brandeis was a legal giant, widely recognized for his weighty influence on the law, his championing of liberal ideals, including the right to privacy, and his creation of the “Brandeis” brief in which factual data was incorporated into legal argument. Brandeis believed in utilizing the law to shape politics, society and economics, and championed many progressive causes. He also became a leader in the Zionist movement and confidante of Franklin Roosevelt.

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Today in Legal History: Poll Tax Abolished

On January 23, 1964, South Dakota ratified the 24th Amendment, abolishing the use of the poll tax as a requirement to vote in federal elections.  The 24th Amendment was the work of Senator Spessard L. Holland of Florida, who took up the cause in 1949.  Poll taxes were a discriminatory means of preventing newly enfranchised African Americans from voting by requiring voters to pay a fee to cast a ballot.  The fees were set high enough to keep poor African Americans from voting, but not high enough to be a hardship on middle class and affluent whites.


 

Today In Legal History: Roe v. Wade Decided

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court issued one of the most famous and controversial legal decisions of our era.  Justice Harry Blackmun authored the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion.  At the time, news of the decision was pushed off the front page of many newspapers when former President Lyndon B. Johnson died on the same day.  President Nixon had appointed Blackmun only three years before, thinking he would be a “quiet, safe choice.”  The Roe v. Wade decision, however, threw Blackmun into the limelight, where he was alternately adored or hated.

In his recent biography of Blackmun, Tinsley E. Yarbrough focuses on Blackmun’s concerns for “outsiders,” an attitude fueled in part by his own self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, having grown up with a regularly unemployed father and anxious mother, in the humbler area of St. Paul, MN.  Reflecting on his initial days at the Court, Blackmun later confessed desperately wondering if he was qualified to grace the position.

More information is available at:

  • History.com
  • Tinsley E. Yarbrough, Harry A. Blackmun: The Outsider Justice, Law Library 4th floor @ KF8745.B555Y37 2008.
  • Jack M. Balkin, What Roe v. Wade Should Have Said: The Nation’s Top Legal Experts Rewrite America’s Most Controversial Decision, Law Library 4th floor @ KF228.R59W47 2005.
  • Marian Faux, Roe v. Wade: The Untold Story of the Landmark Supreme Court Decision that Made Abortion Legal, Law Library 4th floor @ KF228.R59F38 1988.

 

Today in Legal History: US v. E.C. Knight Decided

January 21, 1895. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was passed by Congress in 1890 to stop large monopolies from controlling commerce.  The justification for the Sherman Act was the Commerce Clause.  In US v. E.C. Knight, 156 U.S. 1 (1895) the ability of the Sherman Act was heavily curtailed.  The Supreme Court made a distinction between commerce and manufacturing.  If the manufacturing was done within a single state, the Commerce Clause did not apply.  Until the Clayton Act in 1916, sugar and other processing monopolies like the one in US v. E.C. Knight could not be controlled by federal powers.


 

Today in Legal History: Hawaiian Monarchy Overthrown by American Colonists

On January 17, 1893, a group of American sugar planters, led by Sanford Ballard Dole, deposed the reigning Hawaiian monarch, Queen Liliuokalani.  The coup was staged with the knowledge of then U.S. minister to Hawaii, John Stevens.  On February 1, 1893 minister Stevens recognized the new government (led by Sanford Dole) and proclaimed Hawaii a U.S. protectorate.  President Cleveland tried to restore Queen Liliuokalani and opposed annexation throughout the remainder of his presidency.  Hawaii was annexed in 1898 during President McKinley’s term of office.  Hawaii became a formal territory in 1901 and the 50th state in 1959.

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