Alexander George Sutherland was an English-American politician and jurist, serving as a congressman, a senator, and eventually an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. He was known for his conservative opinions during the 1920s and New Deal period.
Early Life and Education
Sutherland was born in Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire, England on March 25, 1862. His father, a Scotsman, was also named Alexander George Sutherland; his mother, an Englishwoman, was Frances née Slater. Though the younger Sutherland was initially baptized as an Anglican, his father had recently converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (more commonly known as the Mormon Church). In 1863, he moved the family to Utah, settling in Springsville, but also spent some time in Montana; he had several jobs over the years, eventually becoming a lawyer.
The family left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1870s. The younger Sutherland was never formally baptized and rejected aspects of the religion in later life, particularly its “collectivist economic practices,” but retained some fondness for Mormonism and even kept up its tradition of abstinence from alcohol.
After dropping out of school at 12 to help support his family (including working for the Wells Fargo Company), Sutherland saved up enough money to attend Brigham Young Academy. Studying under Karl G. Maeser, considered to be the founder of the school, Sutherland was introduced to the ideas of Herbert Spencer, whose philosophy would guide him over his career. He later joined the University of Michigan Law School but left without completing his studies.
Legal and Political Career
After passing the Michigan state bar, Sutherland married Rosamond Lee, a union which lasted 59 years and produced three children. He moved to Provo, Utah to join his father’s law firm and subsequently formed his own with Samuel Thurman, who would later become Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court. After losing the election to become Provo mayor (running for the Liberal Party), he moved to Salt Lake City. His law firm was quite successful there, and he helped to organize the Utah State Bar Association in 1894.
In 1896, now a Republican, he was elected to the first session of the Utah State Senate and became chairman of the Judiciary Committee; he worked in favor of giving powers of eminent domain to mining and irrigation companies. In 1900, he ran for the United States House of Representatives, narrowly managing to beat out his Democratic opponent (and former law partner), William H. King. His time in the 57th Congress was spent maintaining the tariff on sugar, working on Indian affairs, and addressing issues of irrigation for arid lands.
Instead of running for a second term, Sutherland decided to try his hand at the Senate. The incumbent, a fellow Republican, was Thomas Kearns; the other Utah senator, Reed Smoot, supported Sutherland, who thus managed to gain unanimous approval of the caucus in January 1905. Two years later Sutherland would repay that debt by speaking in Smoot’s defense during the Smoot hearings, when the United States Senate tried to expel him for being a member of the Mormon Church, which many Americans viewed with suspicion.
Sutherland favored much of President Theodore Roosevelt’s legislative agenda, voting for the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Hepburn Act, and the Federal Employers Liability Act. He was also a noted women’s right advocate, even being the one to introduce the Nineteenth Amendment (allowing female suffrage) to the Senate and helping to draft the Equal Rights Amendment.
Nevertheless, he tended to side more conservatively during William Howard Taft’s presidency. This escalated when Woodrow Wilson was elected and his Democratic Party took control of Congress. His open opposition to the president’s policies made him unpopular enough to lose to William H. King in 1916, when they once again bid for the same Senate seat.
After his defeat, Sutherland moved to Washington, D.C., and resumed his private law practice. From 1916 to 1917 he also served as the President of the American Bar Association.
President Warren G. Harding nominated Sutherland to the United States Supreme Court on September 5, 1922, to take up the seat that had been vacated by John Hessin Clarke. In an unusual move, he was actually confirmed by the Senate on the same day.
While the conservatives had clear control of the court during the 1920s, it became divided along ideological lines by the time that Franklin Delano Roosevelt took over the presidency. Sutherland was commonly seen as the leader of the conservative bloc, which consisted of fellow justices James Clark McReynolds, Pierce Butler, and Willis Van Devanter; they were commonly known as the “Four Horsemen,” in opposition to the liberal “Three Musketeers.” Their majority spelled the death of many early New Deal programs and legislation, though the tide turned around 1937 when swing voter Owen Roberts began to side more with the liberals.
A few notable cases and contributions of Sutherland to the court include:
- United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923): Sutherland wrote for the unanimous decision of the court that while Indian Sikhs were technically classified as members of the “Caucasian race,” they were not “white” and were thus ineligible for naturalized citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1790.
- Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co. (1926): Sutherland’s majority decision refused to declare a local zoning law unconstitutional. It has widely been interpreted as supporting zoning laws in general.
- Powell v. Alabama (1932): Sutherland authored the majority opinion that overturned the conviction of the “Scottsboro Boys,” nine black men accused of raping two white women. The court ruled that they were deprived of legal counsel and should have been informed of their rights; this set the stage for later important decisions such as Gideon v. Wainwright and Miranda v. Arizona.
- U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. (1936): Again writing for the majority, Sutherland ruled that the federal government had the primary power over foreign affairs and that the president, in particular, had “plenary” powers for any foreign affairs that did not explicitly require congressional approval. This has been a major boost to the power of the executive branch in the decades since.
Retirement and Death
With the court now leaning against his side, Sutherland chose to retire on January 17, 1938.
After leaving the Supreme Court, Sutherland was designated to the Second Circuit panel that investigated the conviction of Martin Manton, former chief justice of the Second Circuit court, for bribery. Sutherland authored the decision upholding his conviction.
Sutherland had a severe heart attack on July 17, 1942, while vacationing with his wife in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He died in his sleep sometime in the early hours of July 18 and was buried at Abbey Mausoleum in Arlington County, Virginia. His remains were later re-interred to Cedar Hill Cemetery near Suitland, Maryland.