Biography and History

John Marshall Harlan (1899-1971), a distinguished lawyer and jurist, served on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. As a judge, Harlan was known for his conservative views and the scholarly level of his opinions. Prior to becoming a judge, Harlan was a partner at the law firm Root, Ballantine, Harlan, Bushby & Palmer in New York.

John Marshall Harlan was born in Chicago on May 20, 1899 to John Maynard and Elizabeth Palmer (Flagg) Harlan. He graduated from Princeton University with honors in 1920, where he was a member of the editorial staff of the Daily Princetonian and served as president of his class for three years. After Princeton, Harlan studied at Balliol College, Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, earning a B.A. degree in jurisprudence in 1923. Harlan married Ethel Andrews on November 10, 1928 and they had one daughter, Evangeline (Newcomb).

Upon returning to the United States in 1923, Harlan began working at the law firm of Root, Clark, Howland, Buckner & Ballantine, where senior partner Emory R. Buckner became his mentor, and studying at the New York Law School. He received his LL.B. degree from New York State Law School in 1924 and was admitted to the New York Bar in 1925. In 1932, Harlan was made a partner in the firm, which became Root, Ballantine, Harlan, Bushby & Palmer. Prominent cases that he was involved in included the prosecution of theatrical producer Earl Carroll for perjury (1926), settling the $5 million estate of Georgiana G.R. Wendel (1936), and defending the du Pont family in an antitrust suit (1952-1953). He was admitted into the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1945 and to the District of Columbia Bar in 1947.

Harlan temporarily left his law firm on a few occasion during his career for public service positions. When Buckner became U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, he named Harlan chief of the prohibition division, a position Harlan held from 1925 to 1927. He was then appointed special assistant attorney general of New York state by Governor Alfred E. Smith from 1928 to 1930. In this capacity, he investigated the “sewer scandal” that involved the overpayment by the city for Queens county sewers and aided in the successful prosecution of Maurice Connolly, the former Queens borough president. During World War II, he was chief of the Operational Analysis Section of the Eighth Air Force. He also served as chief counsel of the New York State Crime Commission from 1951 to 1953, investigating waterfront rackets in New York City and gambling activities throughout New York state.

Harlan was appointed as a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second District (New York, Vermont and Connecticut) in January 1954 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and confirmed by the Senate in February. Harlan resigned from Root, Ballantine, Harlan, Bushby & Palmer in March 1954, when he was sworn in. Harlan remain in this position for a year, when he became a Supreme Court justice. He was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Eisenhower in November 1954, and on March 15, 1955 was confirmed by a vote of 71 to 11 by the United States Senate as Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Harlan succeeded the late Robert H. Jackson. The delay in his confirmation is largely believed to be a tactic by Southern legislators to postpone the implementation of the Supreme Court's 1954 rulings on school desegregation, as no decision could be reached on that matter without a full court. He took the constitutional and judicial oaths on March 28, becoming the 89th Justice.

Harlan was known for being conservative and often cited for his frequent dissent from the majority opinion of the Warren Court, the most activist Supreme Court in American history up until that time. However, he also often agreed with the decisions of the “liberal” members of the Court, at times even writing the majority opinion. Harlan’s decisions were largely based on his belief in precedent and the limited role of the Court. He believed that, unless there was a substantial demonstration of a previous error, precedent should be respected. He also argued against the Court making legislation or becoming a “haven for reform movements,” believing that the Court circumvented the amendment process by interpreting the Constitution to address all social ills. Instead, he saw it as the Legislature's role to create laws to instigate reform. Harlan was also a supporter of the rights of the state and the individual. His opinions were often lauded for being well researched, concise, and well reasoned.

Some of Harlan’s notable conservative opinions included voting against reapportioning state legislatures to coincide with “one man, one vote,” against invalidating state poll taxes, against requiring the police to read suspects the “Miranda Rights,” and against allowing convicted indigents to have free lawyers in appealing their convictions. He also voted to give the President powers of censorship over newspapers and to give the states substantial leeway in controlling pornography. His “liberal” opinions included voting in 1955 to carry out previous school desegregation rulings “with all deliberate speed,” voting in 1963 to give free counsel to indigent defendants charged with major crimes, and writing the majority opinion in a 1971 ruling that wearing a jacket emblazoned with an obscene reference to the draft in a courthouse was constitutionally protected under free speech.

Harlan retired from the Supreme Court on September 23, 1971 due to ill health. He died on December 29, 1971 at the age of 72. He was succeeded on the Supreme Court by William H. Rehnquist.

Source: From the finding aid for MC071

  • John Marshall Harlan Papers. 1884-1972 (inclusive), 1936-1971 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC071

    John Marshall Harlan (1899-1971), a distinguished lawyer and jurist, served on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. Harlan's papers consist of legal materials, correspondence, writings, and personal papers that document his career as an attorney and a judge, especially the period when he was a Supreme Court Justice.

  • John Marshall Harlan Papers. 1884-1972 (inclusive), 1936-1971 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC071

    John Marshall Harlan (1899-1971), a distinguished lawyer and jurist, served on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. Harlan's papers consist of legal materials, correspondence, writings, and personal papers that document his career as an attorney and a judge, especially the period when he was a Supreme Court Justice.