Whittaker's Chambers

Supreme Court justice Charles Evans Whittaker
Supreme Court justice Charles Evans Whittaker

On February 22, 1901, future Supreme Court justice Charles Evans Whittaker was born near Troy, Kansas. As a young adult, he moved to Kansas City, where he earned a degree from the Kansas City School of Law and then went on to practice law for 30 years. In a space of just three years, starting in 1954, he transitioned into the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Missouri, the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and finally to serve as a Supreme Court associate justice.

Whittaker grew up on his family's farm near Troy, Kansas. His family noticed that Charles had a keen interest in the law from an early age. According to his brother, Sam, Charles held his own mock trials and lectured to the horses as if they were the jury. Despite his deep desire to become a lawyer, he was not known for his academic accomplishments. He attended a single-room public school, but he spent considerable time helping with the farm.

After the ninth grade, Whittaker dropped out of school to pursue farming and a second profession that literally stank: the sale of skunk pelts for $3 apiece. By 1920, he'd managed to save $700 and went to Kansas City to pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer. He worked as an office assistant at the local law firm Watson, Gage & Ess and spent two years completing high school. Taking advantage of his connections at the law firm, he was admitted to the Kansas City School of Law before he completed his high school courses. He received his law degree in 1924.

He joined the law firm where he had been working, which was by then renamed Watson, Ess, Marshall & Enggass. Whittaker was made a junior partner in 1929 and a full partner in 1940. He gained a strong reputation for his work as a trial lawyer, where he primarily represented corporations. Among his regular clients was The Kansas City Star, which through publisher Roy Roberts had strong ties with the Republican Party. This connection proved critical in his eventual rise to the Supreme Court.

On July 8, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Charles Whittaker federal district judge of the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Missouri. Whittaker's connections with the Star doubtlessly helped him rise above the other candidates. From there, Whittaker's rise to the Supreme Court was rapid. President Eisenhower nominated him to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on June 5, 1956, and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court on March 2, 1957. Congress quickly confirmed his nomination, so that in less than three years after his first federal appointment, Whittaker became the nation's 91st Supreme Court justice and the first from either Kansas or Missouri.

Court historians and legal scholars have had an especially difficult time evaluating Whittaker's accomplishments as an associate justice on the Supreme Court. The confusion stems in part from his short five-year tenure, in which he struggled to establish a clear legacy during a time when no landmark cases were decided by the court. Critics charged that his voting record was ideologically inconsistent and that he merely tended to side with the majority vote. Some legal historians, such as Richard Lawrence Miller, argue that Whittaker sometimes relied more on his personal beliefs than on objective legal principles, despite Whittaker's claim to value detailed analysis of facts and the unique context of each case.

Other scholars have rated Whittaker more highly. Court historian Craig Allen Smith explains that Whittaker had long suffered from depression and a fear of failure, and yet he persevered to rise to the nation's highest court. Smith argues that Whittaker actually adhered to objective interpretations of the law, even when they led to decisions that clashed with his personal conservative viewpoints. He did, however, struggle to decide cases when there was no clearly applicable law. To Whittaker's credit, many of his opinions were highly influential in the obscure, but nonetheless crucial procedural cases that make up the bulk of Supreme Court decisions. Smith and others also question the validity of the claims about many of Whittaker's supposed shortcomings.

In any case, Whittaker retired from the Supreme Court in 1962, citing "physical exhaustion." Three years later, Whittaker upheld his personal conservative-leaning convictions by rejecting his Supreme Court pension and returning to work as a corporate arbitrator at the age of 65. "It grated on my conscience to take a pension from the government when I was capable of earning my own living," he later explained. On November 26, 1973, Charles Whittaker died at St. Luke's Hospital following the rupture of a blood vessel in his abdomen. He was 72 years old.

Notwithstanding the controversy over Whittaker's stint as a Supreme Court justice, he will be remembered for his outstanding talent, attention to detail, ambition, and accomplishments. In that spirit, the Charles Evans Whittaker United States Courthouse, completed in Kansas City in 1998, was named after him.

 

View images relating to Charles Evans Whittaker that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

Check out the following books and articles about Charles Evans Whittaker, held by the Kansas City Public Library:

 

Continue researching Charles Evans Whittaker using archival materials from the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

References:

"Former Justice Whittaker of Supreme Court is Dead," The New York Times, November 27, 1973.

"Ex-Justice Gives Up His Pension," Chicago Tribune, November 23, 1965.

Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, The Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 793-794.

George Fuller Green, A Condensed History of the Kansas City Area: Its Mayors and Some V.I.P.s (Kansas City, MO: The Lowell Press, 1968), 312.

Richard Lawrence Miller, Whittaker: Struggles of a Supreme Court Justice (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), 75-76.

Craig Alan Smith, Failing Justice: Charles Evans Whittaker on the Supreme Court (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2005), 1-4, 177-225.

Martin Weil, "Ex-Supreme Court Justice Dies," The Washington Post, Times Herald, November 27, 1973.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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