‘Honoring’ Melville Fuller

Posted Feb. 02, 2010, at 7 p.m.

Melville W. Fuller was a native Mainer who served as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court for 22 years, from 1888 to 1910. Plans are afoot to honor him in the village of Sorrento on or about this coming July 4, possibly in the tiny study where he died exactly 100 years earlier.

“Honor” may not be the correct word for the events. He has had a mixed reputation. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. ranked him as the best chief justice under whom he had served. But when President Grover Cleveland named Mr. Fuller to the highest court, a press critic described him as “the most obscure man ever appointed chief justice” and another called him “the fifth-best lawyer from the city of Chicago,” where he had been practicing law and taking part in Democratic party politics.

Mr. Fuller was born in Augusta, graduated from Bowdoin College and attended Harvard Law School briefly.

In Sorrento, Sturgis Haskins, the unofficial village historian, says he has heard that Mr. Fuller was the worst chief justice of all.

The severest criticism involves his presiding over the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which historians often describe as “infamous.” It established the “separate but equal” doctrine that stayed in place 58 years until the Supreme Court repudiated it in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, outlawing racial discrimination in schools.

The majority opinion in Plessy upheld racial separation in railroad cars and public schools. In a lone blistering dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan predicted that the decision “will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent purpose which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent [13th and 14th] amendments of the Constitution.”

Mr. Fuller also wrote an 1895 opinion throwing out the federal income tax, eventually revived by the 16th Amendment. And his majority opinion supported the Sugar Trust against prosecution under the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Recent revisionist views reject the idea that Mr. Fuller was a racist and a knee-jerk supporter of big business.

Some commentators now see him as a successful leader of a modern Supreme Court, even opening the way for Roe v. Wade.

So it should be interesting to hear the comments of speakers enlisted by the planning group chaired by a New York lawyer, Stephen P. Younger.

There may be some bits of humor, such as a story told by the heavyset Mark Twain, who resembled Mr. Fuller. When someone mistook the humorist for the chief justice and asked for his autograph, Mark Twain supposedly wrote: “It is delicious to be full, but it is heavenly to be Fuller. I am cordially yours, Melville W. Fuller.”

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