Mahlon R. Pitney (b. 1858, d. 1924) was an American statesman and jurist. He served both as a Republican Congressman in the United States House of Representatives and as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1912-1922). He was known for having libertarian leanings.
Early Life and Family
Mahlon R. Pitney was born in Morristown, New Jersey on February 5, 1858. His father, a lawyer, was named Henry Cooper Pitney, while his mother was Sarah Louise Pitney, née Halsted.
Pitney married Florence Shelton in 1891. The pair had three children, including two sons who followed their father and grandfather into a career in law. As an interesting bit of trivia, Pitney was the great-grandfather of Christopher Reeve, the actor most famous for playing the title role in the Superman movies.
Education and Early Law Career
As a young man, Pitney attended what was then called the College of New Jersey, since renamed Princeton University. One of his classmates was Woodrow Wilson, the future President of the United States. Pitney was the manager of the college’s baseball team.
After graduating from the school in 1879, Pitney went to study law at his father’s firm; he then passed the bar exam in 1882. At this point, he decided to open up his own private practice in Dover, New Jersey. However, after his father was nominated as Vice Chancellor of New Jersey in 1889, the younger Pitney returned to his hometown in order to assume control of the elder’s law firm.
Entry into Politics: Congressman, State Senator and Judge
In 1894, Pitney decided to run for the United States House of Representatives, serving for the 4th Congressional District. He managed to beat the one-term incumbent, Johnson Cornish, and two years later had a successful reelection for a second term.
Pitney was a Republican and served as the chairman of the party’s convention for New Jersey in 1895. During that event, he pushed for the nomination of John W. Griggs for New Jersey’s upcoming gubernatorial election. Griggs was chosen and ultimately wound up winning the election.
In fact, Pitney had his eye on one day becoming the governor himself. To that end, he resigned from his congressional position before the end of his second term and instead ran for the state senate of New Jersey in 1889, believing that this would improve his local image better than a position in Washington. After winning the election, he joined the New Jersey senate and became the party floor leader; not long after, the 1900 election gave the Republican Party control of the body, and Putney became the new Senate President.
Pitney’s ambition to the governorship was not to be, however, as Griggs’s successor to the position, fellow Republican Foster M. Voorhees, favored a different candidate to follow in his footsteps. As a consolation prize, Voorhees offered Pitney a chance to join the New Jersey Supreme Court, a position which Pitney chose to accept.
Seven years after that, Pitney would go on to become the Chancellor of New Jersey, making him the highest judge in the state. (The position of chancellor existed under the state constitution of 1844, but not since its amendment in 1947.) During this time he served on one particularly controversial case, Jones Glass Co. v. Glass Bottle Blowers Association, where his ruling made it more difficult for unions to prevent their employers from hiring strikebreakers.
Nomination and Position on the United States Supreme Court
In 1912, Pitney was nominated for the United States Supreme Court by President William Howard Taft, to fill the seat vacated by John Marshall Harlan, Sr. Though his nomination met some resistance from progressives, owing to his above-mentioned ruling against unions, he was ultimately confirmed for the seat by a Senate vote of 50 to 26. He was the last judge that Taft managed to appoint to the Supreme Court, out of an impressive six total.
Pitney’s tenure on the Court was marked by a fairly conservative judicial philosophy. One principle that he adhered to was a substantive due process, which refers to the belief that the courts should work to protect certain fundamental rights from government intrusion, even if such rights are not explicitly mentioned in the United States Constitution.
One example of this idea is Coppage v. Kansas (1915), where the court ruled against a Kansas state law that sought to protect workers from so-called “yellow-dog contracts.” (These contracts forbade people from joining labor unions as a condition of employment.) Though this law helped to protect the common worker against their bosses, Pitney and his fellow justices ruled that the government intruded on the financial sector by trying to force an equal position between the feuding parties. His opinions in the cases of Hitchman Coal and Coke Co. v. Mitchell (1917) and Duplex Printing Press Co. v. Deering (1921) expanded on these ideas, each making it more difficult for unions to perform collective bargaining.
It should be noted that despite his various rulings against unions, Pitney was actually also worried about the expansion of big business; it was for this reason that he supported a more broad interpretation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, a major 1890 law that sought to prevent monopolies from forming. He also wrote the majority opinion in the case of New York Central Railroad Co. v. White, which supported a worker’s compensation law in New York. The ruling helped to lay the foundation for the expansion of such laws and programs.
Another controversial case was Frank v. Magnum, which involved Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager found guilty of murdering a young female employee. Many at Frank’s trial had been openly cheering for his death, largely due to anti-Semitism, and Frank’s team contended that his jury felt intimidated into convicting him. Pitney wrote for the majority opinion that Frank had waited too long before filing the appeal; his colleague, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., said in the minority opinion that this put a stamp of approval on mob justice. (Frank was eventually lynched by a mob, though most historians believe that he was not guilty of the murder in question.)
Former President Taft, who appointed Pitney, would eventually become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court himself; he is the only person so far to fill both positions. Pitney was one of two Taft appointees to share the court with him. He did not last long after, however, and resigned on December 31, 1922 after suffering from a stroke.
Death and Burial
Mahlon R. Pitney died in December 9, 1924, at the age of 66. He was buried at the Evergreen Cemetery in his hometown of Morristown, New Jersey.