An influential Tennessee lawyer, civic leader, orator, and U.S. Supreme Court justice, Edward T. Sanford was born in Knoxville on July 23, 1865, the eldest of six children whose wealthy parents stressed education and achievement. He had received two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Tennessee by the age of eighteen and later added an A.B. and an M.A. from Harvard University. At the age of twenty-four he received an LL.B. from Harvard Law School, where he served as editor of the Harvard Law Review.
In 1890 Sanford began a Knoxville law practice, earning a reputation as an accomplished and meticulous practitioner of chancery and appellate cases. A year later, he married Lutie Mallory Woodruff of Knoxville; they became the parents of two children.
Recognized for his charm and scholarship, he became a trustee of the University of Tennessee in 1897 and the following year was made a part-time law professor. He wrote the first history of the university (initially presented as an address during the Tennessee Centennial). He was also a founding member and president of the board of George Peabody College for Teachers, in addition to holding important offices in numerous state and national organizations. He was one of Tennessee’s most popular platform speakers.
In 1907 he was appointed U.S. assistant attorney general. Following seventeen months in Washington, he was appointed U.S. district judge of Eastern and Middle Tennessee by President Theodore Roosevelt. Though uncomfortable with some of the duties of a trial judge, Sanford had an impeccable record and gained a reputation as a lenient, thorough, and impartial judge.
In 1923, backed by his judicial record and longtime friend Chief Justice William Howard Taft, Sanford was appointed justice of the Supreme Court by President Warren G. Harding. His 130 opinions were generally conservative, favoring strict adherence to antitrust laws. He was known for his “technical” cases, which involved the interpretation of difficult procedural or statutory matters. The most important of these was the Pocket Veto Case (1929), which clarified the rules by which a president could use this power, a question that had remained open for 140 years. He wrote only seven dissents, most notably in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (1923) in which the Court invalidated the District of Columbia minimum wage law for women.
He is best known for his majority opinion in Gitlow v. New York (1925), involving a socialist who had published a manifesto which advocated the violent overthrow of the government. More important than the outcome of the decision, which upheld the defendant’s conviction, was Justice Sanford’s statement that “we assume that freedom of speech and of the press are among the fundamental liberties protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.” (1) This introduced a cornerstone of modern constitutional jurisprudence known as the incorporation doctrine, under which the guarantees of the Bill of Rights have been extended to actions of the states. Heretofore, only the just compensation of the takings clause had been applied to the states. In time, most of the other Bill of Rights have been made applicable as well, leading to important protections for persons accused of crime.
Because of his brief service on the Court, Justice Sanford received a rating of “average” in a survey of Supreme Court justices. Even his sudden death on March 8, 1930, was overshadowed by the passing of Justice William Howard Taft on the same day