Harold Burton was an American lawyer, politician, and Supreme Court Justice. He served as the 45th Mayor of Cleveland, a United States Senator for the state of Ohio, Vice Chair of the Senate Republican Conference, and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States under Harry S. Truman.
Harold Hitz Burton was born on June 22, 1888, to Anna Gertrude and Alfred E. Burton in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His father was an engineer and on the board of student affairs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His mother died young, and in 1906 Harold’s father remarried.
Burton attained his bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1912. The same year he married Selma Florence Smith, with whom he had four children: two daughters, Barbara Weidner and Deborah Adler, and two sons, William Burton and Robert Burton.
Burton moved to Cleveland, Ohio after graduating and began practicing law. In 1914 he became a company attorney for the Utah Power and Light Company in Salt Lake City. He also worked in Boise Idaho for a time for both Boise Valley Traction Company and Utah Light and Traction.
Burton joined the United States Army when the U.S. entered World War I. He attained the rank of captain and experienced heavy action both in France and in Belgium. He received the Belgian Croix de Guerre. When the war was over, Burton moved his family back to Cleveland and he once again began practicing law. He also was an active member of several veterans’ organizations, including the American Legion and the Army and Navy Union, and taught at Western Reserve University Law School.
In 1925 Burton became a co-partner of Cull, Burton, & Laughlin. Burton also decided to enter politics as a Republican after the war. In 1927 he was elected to the East Cleveland Board of Education. The next year he was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, where he served for a short time before becoming law director for the City of Cleveland in 1929. He returned to private practice in 1932 with Andrew, Hadden, & Burton.
Burton was elected mayor of Cleveland in 1935 and earned the nickname “The Boy Scout Mayor” due to his rigid moral code and clean standard of living. During his time as mayor, he focused heavily on reducing organized crime and assimilating immigrants. He also built up the industry of Cleveland and supported public transportation.
In 1940 Burton ran for and was elected to the United States Senate, where he served on the Senate Special Committee to Investigate National Defense Program. It was here that Burton met Harry S. Truman, with whom he got along well.
In 1945 Justice Owen J. Roberts resigned from the Supreme Court. Because of their friendship and as a gesture of bipartisan goodwill, Truman, a Democrat, appointed Burton to the Supreme Court. This was Truman’s first Supreme Court nomination as President. Burton was sworn in on October 1st, 1945.
During his time on the Supreme Court, Burton was noted as having no overreaching judicial philosophy. He was of the opinion that the judicial branch should conduct itself with restraint. He was pragmatic and made legal decisions based on procedural grounds, often times not referring to the Constitution. Burton was well known for investigating every piece of available evidence before making decisions and often spent long hours working in his office. Although well-liked by his colleagues, Burton was often portrayed as simple-minded by the media.
Burton made many contributions to the legal system as it is today. Three of his most important contributions to jurisprudence involves the separation of church and state, racial segregation, and antitrust laws.
In Everson v. Board of Education, Burton initially agreed that it was constitutional to allow schools to reimburse parents whose children rode buses to religious school. He later changed his mind, joining the majority and ruling that it was unconstitutional.
As a former member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Burton was a reliable vote in favor of civil rights. He voted to eradicate the separate but equal doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson, and in 1950 he also voted to with the majority in Sweatt v. Painter which involved separate but equal legal education. Additionally, Burton voted for racially desegregating every graduate school in the United States.
In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Burton made a great effort to turn the undecided judges in favor of overturning Plessy v. Ferguson and to rule that segregating public schools was unconstitutional.
In Lorain Journal Co. v. United States, Burton led the charge in ruling that an existing monopoly could not use its power to maintain its position as a monopoly. This case specifically involved a newspaper using its market power to keep advertisers from spending their money at competing for radio stations. He later wrote that the Sherman Act clearly forbid the creation or maintenance of a monopoly, a view many of his fellow judges did not seem to share. Burton was the only dissenter in Toolson v. New York Yankees. He said that the Major League baseball was involved with interstate commerce and was, therefore, violating the Sherman Antitrust Act.
In early 1958, due in part to an advancing case of Parkinson’s disease, Burton informed President Dwight D. Eisenhower that he would be retiring from the Supreme Court. Eisenhower urged Burton to remain in his position through the end of the year. In October 1958, he publicly announced his retirement and left the Supreme Court on October 13th. Burton ultimately served 13 full sessions as a Supreme Court Justice.
After his retirement, Burton sat by designation for many years on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Colombia. Harold Burton died at the age of 76 in Washington D.C. on October 28th, 1964, due to kidney failure, pulmonary trouble, and complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was laid to rest at Highland Park Cemetery in Cleveland.