The Quick 10: 10 Supreme Court Scandals


It's no secret that I love Robert Schnakenberg's Secret Lives series, so when I recently spotted Secret Lives of the Supreme Court, I snapped it up. There are plenty of fascinating tidbits to share, but let's start with the scandalous ones. Here are 10 of the biggest shockers to ever rock the bench.


Thus far, only one Supreme Court justice has ever been ousted before his time: John Rutledge, who served in 1795. Why?

Simply put, he was losing his mind

. He had slowly become unhinged ever since his wife unexpectedly died in 1792. After he gave a ranting speech about how he would prefer that Washington die instead of sign the Jay Treaty, it was pretty much all downhill. The Senate ousted him in December 1795, which Rutledge responded to by attempting suicide. John Adams wrote that they had to revoke his post because of his "accelerated and increased Disorder of the Mind."

2. During the same time frame, Justice John Blair questioned his sanity as well. His frequent blinding headaches may have been tied to what he called "a rattling, distracting noise in my head," and occasionally his whole face would go numb and he would space off into nothing. He didn't make the Senate vote him out, though - Blair resigned in October, 1795, realizing that he probably wasn't fit to serve anymore.

3. Stephen Johnson Field was nearly assassinated at the hands of another Supreme Court judge in 1889 - an act that proved fatal for would-be assassin and California State Supreme Court Justice David Terry. Terry's wife Sarah had recently lost a case wherein she asked for a divorce and alimony from silver millionaire William Sharon. Sharon said they had never been married in the first place, and with nothing to prove otherwise, Sarah lost the case and then married Terry. It was Justice Field who ruled against Sarah, which Terry apparently recalled when he spied Field on his train on August 14, 1889. He attacked Field, but before he could do much damage, U.S. Marshal David Neagle shot and killed him.

4. James Clark McReynolds was so hated that not a single Justice attended his funeral. They had good reason, though - McReynolds was quite vocally anti-Semite. In fact, after Jewish Justice Louis Brandeis was appointed in 1916, McReynolds left the room every time Brandeis started to speak. He was an equal-opportunity hater, though. Other people that offended him included Germans, women, and African Americans. Some choice tidbits:

"For 4,000 years the Lord tried to make something out of Hebrews, then gave it up as impossible and turned them out to prey on mankind in general - like flees on the dog."

He called African Americans 'ignorant, superstitious, immoral and but small capacity for radical improvement."

German-Americans "engaged in hunnish warfare."

When a woman attorney had the audacity to show up at his court, he remarked, "I see the female is here again," and then left the bench.

5. Unbelievably, it gets worse. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black belonged to the Ku Klux Klan and even administered oaths to new members. By the time FDR appointed him to the Court, though, he was no longer active. It was quite the scandal, though, and Black was forced to do a national radio address to explain himself. There's some evidence that he was just telling the nation what they wanted to hear, though - as late as 1965, Black was complaining that "unfortunately there are some who think that Negroes should have special privileges under the law." Those "special privileges? Voting.

6. Porn in the basement of the Supreme Court? Yup

. Justice John Marshall Harlan II organized private viewings, ostensibly so the Court could determine what was or wasn't obscene. Harlan loved sending the weekly schedule around to the other justices, and when he occasionally couldn't attend, he sent one of his clerks to take notes.

7. Potter Stewart caused a bit of a stir in 1979 which eventually resulted in his resignation from the Court. The Brethren, a bestseller that exposed the behind-the-scenes workings of the Warren Burger Supreme Court, came out that year. It pretty much depicted everyone in the Supreme Court as complete and total idiots - everyone except for Justice Stewart, oddly enough. As you might imagine, his colleagues were none too happy with him and Stewart called it quits in 1981. After he died in 1985, author Bob Woodward confirmed that Stewart had been the main source for the book.

8. If you were a millionaire wanting to get out of a conviction during Abe Fortas' tenure, you were in luck - he readily accepted bribes. In January 1969, Life magazine uncovered this sordid little fact when they discovered that a financier named Louis Wolfson had entered an agreement to pay Fortas $20,000 a year for life for "consultation" on his securities fraud case. Fortas resigned in May.

9. William Rehnquist started taking painkillers for his back pain in 1971… and in 1981, he was still on them. By his own admission, he was taking up to four Valium pills a day in addition to other stuff like Placidyl. After his slurred speech became pretty evident to everyone, he checked himself into detox at the end of the year. His withdrawal was so bad that doctors decided to put him back on his pain meds and wean him off instead of making him go cold turkey.

10. Well, you already know about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, so I'll give you his opinion on the NAACP instead. When an interviewer asked him to name one of the NAACP's good works, Thomas said, "I can't think of any," saying that all civil rights leaders do is "bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and moan, whine and whine."