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Melville W. Fuller

Rare internal Supreme Court correspondence

in which the Chief Justice sends the Reporter of Decisions

corrections to two printed Supreme Court decisions

Melville Weston Fuller, 18331910.  Chief Justice of the United States, 18881910.  Autograph Letter Signed, Melville W. Fuller, as Chief Justice, one page, 5" x 8", with integral leaf attached, no place, December 27, 1903.

This is rare internal Supreme Court correspondence in which Chief Justice Fuller sends corrections to printed Supreme Court opinions to the official Reporter of Decisions, Charles Henry Butler.  In his typical scrawl, which by this point in his life showed some shakiness as well, Fuller writes, In full:  “Dear Reporter  /  On pg 184 of Vol. 191 (page 2 adv. sheets) in the last line of the headnotes insert ʻpʼ for ʻsʼ–  /  On p. 193, in tenth line from bottom, insert ʻinʼ for ʻtoʼ—ʻin the state courtsʼ–  /  On p. 247 the letter M was dropped out of the title of No. 6.  /  Yrs truly  /  Melville W. Fuller."

The Reporter of Decisions is responsible for publishing the decisions—called "opinions"—of the United States Supreme Court.  When the Court announces opinions, it releases them in printed pamphlet form, called "bench opinions,” which within days are replaced by slightly larger size “slip opinions."  The Reporter of Decisions compiles the slip opinions and other Court information, such as orders, announcements, indexes, and other items that compose the full report of the Courtʼs proceedings, into paperback volumes of “preliminary prints."  Between three and five preliminary prints are later compiled into a bound volume of United States Reports that contains the final, official text of the Courtʼs actions.  Corrections may occur at any stage of the process until final publication of a bound volume.  Cases are cited by volume number and page number where they appear in United States Reports.

In this letter, Fuller notes corrections in the reports of two cases in the adv. sheets"—"advance sheets,” in common legal parlance, meaning the preliminary prints.  The cases to which he notes corrections were both decided on November 30, 1903, less than a month before Fuller wrote this letter:  Defiance Water Co. v. City of Defiance, 191 U.S. 184 (1903), and Mosheuvel v. District of Columbia, 191 U.S. 247 (1903).

Fuller wrote the Courtʼs opinion in Defiance Water Co., which involved a lawsuit by the City of Defiance, Ohio, against the water company to enjoin future payments under a 30-year water contract on the ground that the contract was invalid.  After a state court issued a preliminary injunction, the water company sought to lodge the case in federal court, claiming that it would be deprived of due process of law in violation of the United States Constitution.  The Supreme Court ruled that there was no genuine basis for federal jurisdiction.  In the passage that Fuller notes here, in the state courts,” the Chief Justice had written:  “Litigation in the state courts cannot be dragged into the Federal courts at such a stage and in such a way.  The proposition is wholly untenable that, before the state courts in which a case is properly pending can proceed to adjudication in the regular and orderly administration of justice, the courts of the United States can be called on to interpose on the ground that the state courts might so decide as to render their final action unconstitutional."  Defiance Water Co., 191 U.S. at 193.

In Mosheuvel, the Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision that, as a matter of law, a woman could not recover for injuries that she sustained when she fell on a sidewalk in the District of Columbia because of her own contributory negligence.  The opinion was written by Justice Edward D. White, who later succeeded Fuller as Chief  Justice.  Fuller notes here that in the title of No. 6,” which was the Courtʼs docket number for that case, the letter “M" was left off of the name “Mosheuvel."

Fuller presided over a Supreme Court continually criticized for its writing its own economic and social preferences into law. The Justices often substituted their own notions of public policy and fundamental values for those that state legislatures had chosen.  They invalidated state minimum wage and maximum hour laws, which were designed to protect women and children from employer abuse, and laws regulating prices, labor contracts, and business activities.  The practice extended into the mid-1930s, resulting in the invalidation of much New Deal legislation and causing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to propose expanding the number of Justicesthe “court packing" plan of 1937—in order to bend the Supreme Court to his views.

It was Fuller's Court, too, that decided the infamous case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld a Louisiana law requiring “equal but separate accommodations" for white and African-American railroad passengers—a decision in which Fuller concurred.

When Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite died in 1888, Cleveland appointed Fuller to replace him.  Although some senators expressed concern about about Fuller's sympathies for big corporations, and although northern Republicans questioned his loyalty to the Union, he was confirmed three months later by a vote of 4120.  As Chief Justice, Fuller maintained that that governmental powers must derive from a strict interpretation of the Constitution.  He declared the national income tax law unconstitutional and ruled that states could not tax interstate telegraph messages. 

In our experience, Fuller's autograph material, particularly letters, is scarce.  Internal Court correspondence is rare.  This is the first Fuller autograph letter signed that we have seen in quite a while—we have had only two before this one and have found only a handful in auction results over the last 40 years.  Even his typed letters signed are scarce.  More often Fullerʼ autograph is found in signed cards.

Fuller has penned and signed this letter in jet black ink.  The letter has slight uneven toning and two intersecting folds, the vertical of which goes through the first letter of Fullerʼs signature.  Overall the letter is in very fine condition.




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