On May 2, 1927, the United States Supreme Court delivered its verdict in Buck v. Bell. The court ruled in favor of John Hendren Bell, superintendent of the state colony for the epileptic and feeble-minded*, upholding a Virginia law that favored the involuntary sterilization of those deemed mentally unfit. Only one judge dissented. His name was Pierce Butler, Catholic and originally from Minnesota.
Butler did not write a formal dissenting opinion, so it’s likely no one will ever know exactly why he voted the way he did. But it is likely that his Catholic faith played a role. In the early 1900s, eugenics was a popular branch of biology that sought to improve the human race through better reproduction, and sterilizing people with less desirable traits was one way to put eugenics into practice. Catholics were among the most consistent opponents of eugenics ideas. In 1930, Pope Pius XI argued in the encyclical “Casticonnubii” that when no crime had taken place, the government should not be able to alter the integrity of the body for any reason. Meanwhile, following Buck v. Bell, laws calling for forced sterilization have spread across the country.
Beyond this particular case, Pierce Butler was a rather unremarkable Supreme Court justice, who had been selected on the basis of a superior legal career. He was born to two Irish immigrants on St. Patrick’s Day in 1866. Pierce followed in his father’s footsteps and became a local teacher as a teenager before enrolling at nearby college, Carleton, like his siblings elders. Although the school was non-denominational, Butler’s final speech at school was on “the greatness of the Roman Catholic Church and its good influence in the world.” After graduating, he articled with a law firm in St. Paul and was admitted to the state bar in 1888.
Although Butler was elected Ramsey County District Attorney at age 26, he preferred private practice. He has established a national and international reputation representing James J. Hill Railroads, other companies and the US government in court in the United States and Canada. So when it became clear that Justice William Rufus Day would leave the Supreme Court in 1922 due to failing health, Butler was a candidate worth considering to fill the seat.
Butler was a well-respected attorney, but it was ultimately his demographics that propelled his name to the top of the candidate list. He was well known for his fierce courtroom cross-examinations and carefully prepared legal arguments. He was also a staunch Democrat and a Catholic. Republican President Warren G. Harding was interested in putting a moderate Democrat on the court to broaden his popularity, and he wanted to prevent any complaints about the lack of a Catholic on the court following the impending retirement of the sole remaining Catholic judge. Of course, groups as varied as the Women’s Auxiliary of the Ohio State Good Government Association and the Ku Klux Klan feared that a Catholic would be nominated. Additional concerns came from progressives who worried about his ties to big business. But with the vocal support of the American bishops and others, the senate finally confirmed it by a wide margin on December 21, 1922.
Until his death in 1939, Pierce Butler remained a Supreme Court justice. Today you will find Butler buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul and honored by the name of a road that runs alongside the railroad tracks just south of this cemetery.
*A note: although this term is no longer used, it accurately reflects the historical name of the institution.
Luiken is a Catholic and a historian with a doctorate. from the University of Minnesota. She enjoys exploring and sharing the hidden stories that touch our daily lives.
Category: Echoes of Catholic Minnesota