The House of Truth and Justice Holmes

I just finished Brad Snyder’s fascinating new book on “The House of Truth.” The book is about the men who lived or visited this house near Dupont Circle in Washington DC during the 1910s, most notably Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Felix Frankfurter, Walter Lippmann, and Gutzon Borglum (the sculptor of Mount Rushmore). There is a lot to chew over, both in terms of how Snyder traces the evolution of progressive thought, the personalities involved, and the events swirling about them.

My strongest impression from the book, though, is that it changes my view on Holmes somewhat.  I’ve always had a negative opinion of him, in part because of Buck v. Bell, but also because of his broad pronouncements about the virtues of majoritarianism. Brilliant guy, great writer, but not a person whose legal values were worth emulating. True, he wrote some excellent dissents in First Amendment cases, but I thought of that as the exception rather than the rule.

Why do I feel differently?  Snyder points out that Holmes did more than any other Justice of the time on behalf of African-American rights.  (Perhaps a more precise way of putting this is that the post-1919 more-liberal Holmes did.) Moore v. Dempsey, a 1923 case written by Holmes, was the first Supreme Court decision that ordered a lower federal court to reexamine (though habeas) a state trial that convicted several African-American defendants.  The Court held that there were serious questions raised about whether the petitioners got a trial at all.  Holmes also commented, in an order rejecting the plea of Sacco and Vanzetti for Supreme Court review, that what they got (as flawed as it was) was far more than what many African-Americans were getting.

I want to give this more more thought, but then again that’s what quality books do.

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