Wiley Blount Rutledge Jr., the son of a Baptist preacher, was born in Cloverport, Kentucky on July 20th 1894. Due to the nature of his father’s job, Rutledge moved around frequently as a child. Later, when he became a father himself, he would replicate this practice with his own family. He first attended Maryville College, but transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and graduated in 1914. Moving again, he settled in Bloomington Indiana and taught high school while studying law part-time at what is now called Indiana University Maurer School of Law. Rutledge finished his law degree at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder, where he also joined the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity.
In Colorado, Rutledge met Annabel Person, whom he married on August 28, 1917, months after completing his degree. The couple would go on to have three children: Mary Lou, Jean Ann, and Neal. Rutledge established a private practice in Boulder, but he abandoned it after a few years, deciding to pursue an academic career.
In this venture, he was successful. He taught at the University of Colorado between 1926-1928 and then transferred to Washington University in St. Louis. Rutledge taught at the university from 1926-1930 and then served as Dean for five years after that. The Wiley Rutledge Moot Court competition—in which law students participate in mock trials to test their legal abilities—still takes place today. In 1935, he moved again to work as Dean of the University of Iowa College of Law.
In the mid-1930s, Rutledge’s name came to be bandied about for a federal appointment. With a nearly two-decade career as a legal academic, Rutledge seems an unlikely choice. During his time at the University of Iowa, however, he became an outspoken advocate of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He especially praised the president’s 1937 decision to “pack” the Supreme Court.
At the time, the U.S. was still in the midst of the Great Depression. Roosevelt had just served his first term in which many of his New Deal initiatives to get Americans back to work had passed Congress only to be struck down as unconstitutional by the 9th Circuit. To resolve this issue, he put forward legislation that would expand the number of justices serving on the Court. Specifically, the bill would allow the president to add one member for every sitting justice over the age of 70 and six months.
The Judiciary Act of 1869 had defined the Supreme Court as a body led by a Chief Justice supported by eight associate justices. The Constitution; however, does not determine the exact specifications of the Court. With this logic, Roosevelt passed the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937.
Despite an almost purely academic career, Rutledge had long been a prominent name in consideration for Supreme Court Justice, especially following the retirement of Justice Louis D. Brandeis. According to the New York Times, Rutledge “had strong backing.” In 1939, he was nominated for a position on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Roosevelt’s Attorney General, Frank Murphy, especially advocated for Rutledge. According to the Times, “The Attorney General reported to the White House that the dean was a man of outstanding character and integrity.” Murphy also “emphasized that the dean was a law educator and not a politician.”
As an academic, Rutledge had established himself as a conscious liberal. In 1933, for example, he published an essay titled “The Federal Government and Child Labor” in the Social Service Review. The essay responded to an attack on the Child Labor Amendment—a proposed and still-pending Constitutional amendment that would ban anyone under the age of 18 from working in the United States—made by Clarence Martin, who at the time was president of the American Bar Association. Rutledge attacked Martin for adhering to an “underlying social and economic philosophy of ‘rugged individualism.'” He used scathing language to decry this outlook:
“Behind [the] legal and political dogmas of the eighteenth century all forms of commercialized greed have sought to establish their interests beyond the reach of governmental control. They are the sheep’s wool in which the institution of human slavery was legally clothed; the guise under which railway combinations and other forms of trusts sought freedom from national restraint in order to establish national monopoly; the shield behind which vast power combinations seek similar freedom today; the basis upon which workmen’s compensation acts, minimum wage laws, laws regulating hours of labor, and all other forms of legislation in the public interest have been resisted.”
In short, although Rutledge had little experience as a litigator, his appointment to the Court of Appeals was hardly quid pro quo cronyism. Rutledge had aligned himself with Roosevelt’s agenda long before either the court was packed in 1937 or his appointment was considered.
When Supreme Court Justice James F. Byrnes resigned in 1942 to aid in wartime mobilization, Roosevelt put forward Rutledge’s name as his replacement. Rutledge proved to be significantly more liberal than Byrnes, and helped to shift Roosevelt’s Court even further to the left. He also proved a loyal ally of the president who appointed him throughout his tenure on the Court.
In the case of Kotteakos v. United States (1946), for example, in which two individuals were charged with conspiracy, Rutledge made a vigorous defense of the 14th Amendment and the defendants’ rights to due process, though public sentiment was staunchly against them. He wrote that the government “has a stake, with every citizen, in his being afforded our historic individual protections, including those surrounding criminal trials. About them we dare not become careless or complacent when that fashion has become rampant over the earth.”
Rutledge made a similar defense in the case of Yamashita v. Styer (1946) in which the Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita filed for habeas corpus in order to make an appeal for his convictions of committing war crimes during WWII. Rutledge again employed extremely ideological arguments to hammer home his point.
Rutledge, along with Justices Douglas, Murphy, and Black, formed a liberal bastion on the 9th Circuit that irked the more conservative Justice Frankfurter, who advocated for judicial restraint.
Rutledge was an early supporter of Justice Black, who believed that the 14th Amendment not only included due process for every person, but also extended to the Bill of Rights protections. This opinion would later become law as a result of Benton v. Maryland (1969).
While vacationing in Maine in the summer of 1949, Justice Rutledge suffered a stroke while driving his car. He died just two weeks after at the age of 55.
While Justice Rutledge did not play outsized roles in many high-profile Court cases, his role should not be understated. The words of Attorney General Frank Murphy proved true: he was a man of outstanding character and integrity. Though he moved himself and his family around constantly, his ideologically outlook maintained a consistent track from his time as an academic to his appointment to the Court of Appeals to his tenure as Associate Supreme Court Justice.
He was laid to rest at Green Mountain Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado. His opinions, especially those regarding habeas corpus, were cited as recently as 2004 in the case of Rasul v. Bush, which allowed prisoners in Guantanamo Bay to have their day in court. His personal outlook is widely respected in the American legal system and his writingscontinue to influence American judicial proceedings.