Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse - Legendary U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black was from Alabama

  The most enduring legacy a president will have is an appointment to the United States Supreme Court. A lifetime appointment to the high tribunal is the ultimate power. The nine Justices of the Supreme Court have omnipotent, everlasting power over most major decisions affecting issues and public policy in our nation. President Trump has had two SCOTUS appointments and confirmations. This is monumental. These appointments may be his lasting legacy.

  The only Alabamian to ever serve on the U.S. Supreme Court was Hugo Black. It may come as a surprise to you since Alabama is today considered one of the most conservative places in America, but Hugo Black was arguably one of the most liberal Supreme Court justices in history. He was also one of the longest-serving justices.  

  Black was the fifth longest-serving Supreme Court Justice. He sat on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1937 until his death in 1971. Nearly 35 of his 85 years on earth were spent on the Supreme Court.

  Hugo Black, like most folks of that era in Alabama history, was born on a farm. Black was from rural Clay County. He was the youngest child of a large family. He worked his way through the University of Alabama Law School under the tutelage of President George Denny. He shoveled coal to stoke the furnaces at the university. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

  Black began practicing law in Birmingham at 22 years old. He became a Jefferson County prosecutor, but then World War I broke out. He served in the war and rose to the rank of captain.

  In 1926, at age 40, Black was elected to the U.S. Senate. Prior to that, he had been a practicing labor lawyer and won his seat with the help of organized labor, especially in Birmingham. He arrived in the Senate at the beginning of the Great Depression. During his entire tenure in the Senate, America was in the throes of the Depression. Folks who endured this era were marked by it. It made all southern politicians progressives and New Dealers. 

  Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to the White House in 1932. His New Deal was the most legendary political accomplishment in American history. Black became one of FDR’s staunchest allies. He voted for 24 out of 24 of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

  Alabama benefitted mightily from FDR’s New Deal, especially rural Alabama and the Tennessee Valley. Roosevelt rewarded Alabama’s junior senator with a coveted seat on the Supreme Court. He was one of nine justices appointed by President Roosevelt during his 13-year reign as president.  

  It is hard today to imagine that Alabama could produce such a liberal judge. However, during this era of American history, Alabama’s congressional delegation was one of the most liberal in the nation due to the fact that they totally embraced FDR and his New Deal.

  Black was a liberal New Dealer in the Senate and liberals were pleased by the Justice from Alabama’s tenure over the next 35 years. Liberals regard Black as one of the most influential Supreme Court Justices of the 20th Century. He literally hung his hat on the 14th Amendment.

  Black was a part of the court decision that declared school racial segregation illegal in the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision. He was the author of numerous opinions upholding civil rights. It is interesting, and probably unbelievable to most Americans, that Alabama’s only contribution to the Supreme Court was one of the most liberal Justices.

  In many ways, our current Democratic U.S. Senator, Doug Jones, is very similar to the late Justice Hugo Black. If truth were known, my guess is that one of Doug Jones’ idols is Hugo Black.

  Jones is a Birmingham, pro-labor, civil rights, criminal defense lawyer with a background as a prosecutor. He was appointed a U.S. Attorney by a Democrat president. Doug Jones has throughout his legal career been a national Democrat.

  It is very likely that Democrat Joe Biden could win the White House. If that occurs, look for Doug Jones as a potential cabinet member. Even though at age 64, Doug Jones is not the ideal choice for a Supreme Court appointment, it is not out of the realm of possibility.

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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