TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Jason Smith on Dec 31, 2018

Journal Issue Date: Jan 2019

Journal Name: Vol 55 No 1

A Tennessean on the U.S. Supreme Court

Knoxville has traditionally done a poor job of honoring its greatest citizens. James Agee’s childhood home was unceremoniously demolished.1 Similarly, Cormac McCarthy’s childhood home was left abandoned, and it eventually burned to the ground.2 A gas station now sits at the location of the childhood home of the artist Beauford Delaney.3 So it was not surprising to learn that the only Knoxvillian and University of Tennessee alumnus to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States had been largely forgotten in his hometown. Thankfully, Stephanie L. Slater’s thoroughly researched new biography recovers the memory of Justice Edward Terry Sanford from its fade into obscurity.

Sanford was born in Knoxville shortly after the end of the Civil War. His mother, Emma, immigrated to America as a child when her family fled religious persecution in their native Switzerland. His father, E. J., was a Unionist who became the Knoxville version of a Gilded Age robber baron. Sanford attended the University of Tennessee, where he received two bachelor’s degrees and was the valedictorian of his class. He then attended Harvard University, where he received his law degree.

Sanford returned to Knoxville and entered private practice in 1889. Much of his practice focused on corporate law, and he often represented his father’s numerous business interests. One particular company that “consumed a considerable portion” of Sanford’s practice was the Coal Creek Mining and Manufacturing Company of which his father was the president and director. Sanford himself was on the company’s board of directors at the time of the Fraterville Mine Disaster, the worst mine disaster in Tennessee history.

Throughout his career, Sanford gave much of his time to various civic and political causes in Knoxville and Tennessee. He was twice president of the University of Tennessee Alumni Association. He eventually gained a seat on the University’s Board of Trustees and was instrumental in the development of what would become the University’s College of Law. Sanford also served two terms as president of the Tennessee Bar Association. From time to time,Sanford’s name would be bandied about as a possible Republican candidate for governor.

After almost two decades of practicing in Knoxville, Sanford was made a special assistant to the United States attorney general to prosecute antitrust claims. In 1907, he was appointed assistant United States attorney general. In that role, he argued several cases in front of the Supreme Court. Sanford also served as the lead prosecutor in United States v. Shipp,4 the first and only criminal trial conducted in the Supreme Court.5

President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Sanford to serve as the United States district judge for the Eastern and Middle Districts of Tennessee in 1908. At the time, there was only one judgeship to serve both districts. This required Sanford to hear cases in Knoxville, Nashville, Chattanooga and Greeneville. Despite such a crowded docket, Sanford wanted his opinions to be “flawless.” This led to the only major criticism of Sanford as a jurist, that he was too slow in rendering his decisions. Otherwise, he was known as “the most impartial judge in the South” and showed a high degree of courtesy to all who entered his courtroom.

In 1923, Sanford was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Warren G. Harding. The vast majority of opinions authored by Sanford involved the interpretation of difficult procedural or statutory matters in areas such as bankruptcy, patents and taxation. His record on the Supreme Court was not without its flaws. Sanford authored the opinion in Corrigan v. Buckley,6 upholding the use of restrictive covenants banning the sale of real property to racial minorities. He also joined the majority opinion in Buck v. Bell,7 which upheld a Virginia law allowing the forced sterilization of those deemed “socially inadequate.”

However, Justice Sanford’s greatest legacy from his time on the Supreme Court was having authored the majority opinion in Gitlow v. New York.8 In Gitlow, Sanford stated that the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of speech and of the press were incorporated into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and applicable to state and local governments. The impact of Gitlow was initially muted because Sanford’s opinion upheld Mr. Gitlow’s convictions. However, Gitlow is widely considered to be the beginning of the incorporation doctrine, which has been used to apply most of the protections found in the Bill of Rights to state and local governments.

Sanford died unexpectedly in 1930 at the age of 64, muting his impact on American jurisprudence. Slater’s biography places a long overdue spotlight on him by exploring how he was affected by growing up and living in post-Civil War Knoxville and examining in detail the major opinions Sanford authored as a District Court judge and Supreme Court justice.

Hopefully, Slater’s excellent biography is just the beginning of Justice Sanford’s receiving the attention deserving of a man who, as Slater notes, was once described as “one of the more
prominent and personable Tennesseans of his time” and Knoxville’s “most illustrious son.”

Jason R. Smith is a law clerk to Judge D. Kelly Thomas Jr., of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. Smith also teaches legal communications as an adjunct professor at LMU Duncan School of Law. Prior to clerking for Judge Thomas, he was a research attorney at Butler, Vines & Babb PLLC in Knoxville. You can see more of what Jason is reading by following him on Twitter @jrs082 or at https://www.goodreads.com/jrs082.  

1. See Jack Neely, “How the Gritty Knoxville of 1915 Compares to James Agee’s Idyllic Memoir,” Knoxville Mercury (June 24, 2015), www.knoxmercury.com/ 2015/06/24/how-the-gritty-knoxville-of-1915-compares-to-james-agees-idyllic-memoir (last visited Aug. 20, 2018).
2. See J. J. Stambaugh, “Cormac McCarthy House Burns,” Knoxville News Sentinel (Jan. 28, 2009), http://archive.knoxnews.com/
entertainment/pop-culture/cormac-mccarthy-house-burns-ep-410445003-359613851.html (last visited Aug. 20, 2018).
3. See Jack Neely, “The Life of Knoxville Artist Beauford Delaney” (1901-1979), Knoxville Mercury (Feb. 18, 2016), www.knoxmercury.com/2016/02/18
/the-life-knoxville-artist-beauford-delaney-1901-1979 (last visited Aug. 20, 2018).
4. 214 U.S. 386 (1909).
5. For an excellent recounting of the facts of the Shipp case, which arose out of a lynching in Chattanooga, see Mark Curriden & Leroy Phillips Jr., Contempt of Court:?The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism (Anchor Books 2001) (1999).
6. 271 U.S. 323 (1926).
7. 274 U.S. 200 (1927).
8. 268 U.S. 652 (1925).