BROWN, HENRY BILLINGS
Henry Billings Brown was an associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1890 to 1906.
Born to a wealthy family on March 2, 1836, at South Lee, Massachusetts, Brown attended private schools as a child. His father, a prosperous merchant and manufacturer, saw to it that Brown attended Yale University, where he graduated in 1856. After graduation, Brown traveled in Europe for a year, then returned to study law at Yale and Harvard. In 1859 he moved to Detroit and in 1860 he was admitted to the Wayne County bar in Michigan.
Brown was appointed deputy U.S. marshal
in 1861. Detroit at that time was a bustling Great
Lakes port, and he became involved in the many
commercial and maritime legal disputes that
arose. Two years later, he was named assistant
U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.
He held this post until May 1868 when he
was appointed to fill a short-term vacancy on
the Wayne County Circuit Court.
Recognized as the leading authority on
ADMIRALTY LAW and maritime law, Brown lectured
on the subjects at the University of Michigan
Law School, and compiled and published
Brown’s Admiralty Reports. In 1890 President
BENJAMIN H. HARRISON appointed him to the
U.S. Supreme Court. As a Court member, Brown
gained a reputation as a moderate but was a
staunch defender of property rights. He was
reluctant to extend constitutional protection in
CRIMINAL PROCEDURE and civil liberties disputes,
and concurred with the majority in
LOCHNER V. NEW YORK, 198 U.S. 45, 25 S. Ct.
539, 49 L. Ed. 937 (1905), which struck down a
statute calling for maximum work hours for
bakers. Lochner was consistent with Brown’s
unwillingness to allow governmental interference
with contractual freedom.
Brown also concurred in the so-called Insular
cases, which held that residents of U.S. territories
such as Puerto Rico are not entitled to constitutional
protections. However, he departed somewhat
from his usual strict adherence to judicial
precedence when he voted to uphold the federal
INCOME TAX in POLLOCK V. FARMERS’ LOAN &
TRUST CO., 158 U.S. 601, 15 S. Ct. 912, 39 L. Ed.
Brown is perhaps best remembered as the
author of the Court’s opinion in PLESSY V. FERGUSON,
163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed.
256, the 1896 decision upholding state-mandated
racial SEGREGATION in railway cars as long
as the accommodations were equal. The “separate-
but-equal” doctrine pronounced in Plessy
became the constitutional foundation for JIM
CROW LAWS and RACIAL DISCRIMINATION, particularly
in the South. Later opinion condemned
the Plessy decision, and indeed Brown has often
been criticized for his role in it; however, the
decision must be viewed in the historical context
in which it was written. Also, the language in
Plessy, requiring equality of treatment, later
became the basis of legal challenges to segregation
Failing eyesight forced Brown to retire from
the bench in 1906. He died in 1913.
Schwartz, Bernard. 1993. A History of the Supreme Court.
New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Tribe, Laurence H. 1985. God Save This Honorable Court.
New York: Random House.
Labor Law; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas;