John Hessin Clarke was a longtime lawyer and judge who reached the apex of his career in 1916 when he was appointed an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He served in this capacity from 1916 to 1922. Although this appointment is his lasting claim to fame, Clarke also earned an enduring legacy as a champion of progressive causes during the tumultuous years leading up to World War I. Even so many years after his death, he remains an influential and often quoted figure in the annals of American legal history.
The Early Years of a Future Supreme Court Justice Were Prophetic
Clarke was born in New Lisbon, Ohio on September 18, 1856. He was the third child and sole male heir of John Clarke, a noted lawyer and judge in his own right. As a young man, Clarke attended New Lisbon High School, then became a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon Fraternity at Western Reserve College. As such, he eventually graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1877. Unusually for a future member of the legal profession, he did not attend a law school, but he did study privately under the direction of his father. He passed the bar exam cum laude in 1878.
Local Success Led to an Interest in Progressive Causes
Clarke became the half-owner of a local newspaper called the Youngstown Vindicator. He used his position at the paper to pen many editorials and special articles in which he revealed himself as an outspoken advocate of progressive causes. These causes included opposition to the growing power of corporate monopolies, known as trusts, as well as the ongoing struggle associated with reforming the civil service in order to avoid the pernicious evils of graft and vote rigging. These were hot button issues at the turn of the 20th century, with which Clarke and many other legal experts grappled.
A Move to Cleveland Coincided With a Growing Participation in Politics
In 1896, Clarke moved to Cleveland, where he took a position as a partner in the law firm of Williamson and Cushing. While this firm was well known for its pro-business tendencies, representing the interests of railroads and large corporations, this move did not signify that Clarke had abandoned his progressive tendencies. Instead, his time at the firm only seemed to strengthen his conviction that anti-trust and civil service reform laws were the answer to the pressing problems of graft and undue corporate influence on the legal system.
Clarke’s Time in Cleveland Saw an Evolution of His Political Views
Clarke’s time in Cleveland proved to lay the groundwork for an evolution in his political views. As a young man, Clarke had been a champion of such classic Constitutional issues as states’ rights. During his time in Cleveland, however, Clarke abandoned this outdated dictum and began to cultivate closer relationships with leading progressives of the period. These included Tom L. Johnson, who was currently serving as the mayor of Cleveland. His friendship with Johnson smoothed over many difficulties that Clarke had had with non-progressive elements in his own party.
A Failed Bid for the Senate Led to an Appointment as a Federal Judge
Clarke made a failed bid for the Senate in 1903. However, his failure to support non-progressive Democratic candidates, including Grover Cleveland, as well as his history as a partner at a pro-railroad legal firm, worked against him and he lost the race. For ten years, he continued with his legal career, while preparing for a second bid for the Senate. However, his prospects as a lawyer were brighter than ever, as an appointment to the judgeship on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio soon opened up in 1914. Clarke was tapped to fill the position.
A Special Appointment From President Wilson Led to a Supreme Court Seat
Clarke’s meteoric career reached a new height in 1916. Clarke was tapped by Wilson once more to fill a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court. Although initially reluctant to accept this offer, Clarke finally relented and agreed to take the job. As a result, President Wilson sent his official nomination of Clarke to the Senate on July 14, 1916. Ten days later, Clarke was confirmed in his post as Associate Justice. He continued for six years in this position. As he reached the apex of his legal career, he continued as a strong champion of various progressive causes.
The Tenor of Clarke’s Service Reflected a Commitment to Progressive Causes
The tenor of Clarke’s service on the Supreme Court bench reflected a continuation of his longstanding commitment to progressive causes. Clarke continued to vote against opinions that favored the growth of monopolies in the corporate world. He also championed the imposition of stricter child labor laws. In general, he was an advocate of government regulation of the economy, which he signalized by becoming a major supporter of anti-trust legislation.
Dissatisfaction With the Court Led to an Early Resignation
Unfortunately, Clarke’s time as a Supreme Court Justice proved to be somewhat shorter than expected. Although he remained as an influential and highly respected figure during his time on the bench, he did not enjoy the atmosphere of the court. He disliked having to pause to consider the opinions of others when he wrote his findings. He also suffered severe personal issues with fellow Justice Clark McReynolds, a Republican and conservative with whom Clarke clashed on many occasions. As a result, Clarke turned in his resignation from the Court on September 1, 1922.
Clarke’s Life After Retirement from the Bench Was a Busy One
Although Clarke resigned from the Supreme Court in 1922, this did not signify a slow and dignified fading away from the public eye. Despite suffering from deafness and the onset of old age, Clarke remained active as a champion of progressive causes. He spent many years advocating for the entry of the United States into the League of Nations. Upon his death on March 22, 1945, he was buried at his hometown Lisbon Cemetery in Ohio.