Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas

Today in Administrative Law I'm teaching the classic 1908 Supreme Court case of Londoner v. City and County of Denver. The opinion is written by Justice Moody.

Justice Moody? Who? Have you ever heard of him? I certainly hadn't. His contemporary Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is still a household name, but, even in the rarefied halls of legal academia, Justice Moody merits only a puzzled shrug.

In fact, a little research shows that Justice William Henry Moody had a sparkling, highly distinguished career. A graduate of Phillips Academy and Harvard University, he was elected city solicitor for Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1888 at the age of 35. Two years later, he became the district attorney (the equivalent of today's U.S. Attorney) for the Eastern District of Massachusetts and gained attention prosecuting the Lizzie Borden case. He was elected to Congress four times, and, in the administration of his friend Teddy Roosevelt, he served not only as Attorney General, but also as Secretary of the Navy, for two years each. Roosevelt appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1906. He served only four years there before health problems forced him to retire, but he wrote dozens of opinions, including an important dissent in the First Employers Liability Cases, in which he argued for an expansive understanding of Congress's power to regulate commerce.

How sad, really, to think that after working hard all your life, exploiting your connections, and constantly clawing your way up the ladder, you could actually make it on to the Supreme Court and still, a century later, be nothing more than meaningless name in the books, unknown even among lawyers and law professors. It's not enough to be a Supreme Court Justice, you have to be an exceptional Supreme Court Justice to achieve lasting fame. Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas.

4 comments:

Patrick Ishmael said...

Ha, I'm a 1L and hadn't heard of Moody, though it appears understandably so. The more I delve into the bios of our judges, the more intricate and interesting the history of my (hopefully) future profession becomes.

Like the Latin, too, although that's the classical nerd in me speaking out.

David Krinsky said...

Two responses come to mind:

(1) As an alternative to being exceptional, it probably helps to serve more than four years.

(2) "Lasting fame" it may not be, but I would be glad of it if people are blogging about my "sparkling, highly distinguished career" a century after I retire.

jurisprudish said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jurisprudish said...

"exceptional" or "exceptionable"--everyone knows the name Taney (although few know how to pronounce it).