Birth Date: January 27, 1872
Death Date: August 18, 1961
Billings Learned Hand was a jurist who served as a federal district court judge and as a judge of the Federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He wrote approximately 3,000 judicial opinions that have had significant influences on American federal law especially in the areas of antitrust, copyrights, criminal law, and the First Amendment. Of continued interest today are his decisions involving freedom of speech.
Hand was born into a family of lawyers at Albany, New York, on January 27, 1872, as the son of Samuel and Lydia Hand (née Learned). His father was an important New York lawyer, and his grandfather (Augustus C. Hand) and his uncles and a cousin were all attorneys at law as well. Learned Hand graduated from Albany Academy and then in 1893 earned an undergraduate degree at Harvard, where he also edited the Harvard Advocate. He remained for a master’s degree in philosophy, graduating in 1894 with highest honors and a Phi Beta Kappa key. He remained in Cambridge for another two years during which he earned a law degree from Harvard Law School while editing the Harvard Law Review. In 1897 he began the practice of law at Albany.
In 1902 Hand moved to New York City, where he worked first with the firm of Zabriskie Burrill and Muray. That year Hand also met and married Frances Amelia Fincke, a graduate of Bryn Mawr. They eventually had three daughters, whom they raised in a midtown Manhattan brownstone. In 1904 Hand became a partner in Gould and Wilkie, where he practiced until 1909 when he left for the bench of the Federal District Court for Southern New York following an appointment by President William Howard Taft. Hand served as a federal district judge for 15 years and rendered 637 opinions during that time.
One of the most important decisions that Hand delivered as a U.S. district court judge involved a restriction on freedom of speech under the Espionage Act of 1917. New York postmaster Thomas G. Patten refused to allow the magazine The Masses to be carried by the postal system. The Espionage Act was designed to prevent both sabotage and disruption of the war effort by either foreign agents or domestic opponents. Hand ruled against the government (Masses Publishing Co. v. Patten). His reasoning was that freedom of speech was protected by the First Amendment unless the speech was a direct incitement to violence or other illegal action. The opinion was controversial, but the Supreme Court began to follow and develop his logic in future similar cases. Court observers believe that the Supreme Court essentially adopted his position in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969).
In 1924 President Calvin Coolidge appointed Hand to the Federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He probably would have been appointed to the Supreme Court by President Warren G. Harding, but Chief Justice Taft opposed the nomination in a letter to Harding. Taft’s objections to Hand were to his opposition to Taft in the election of 1912 that had cost him the election and the presidency. In the 1940s Felix Frankfurter appealed to President Franklin Roosevelt to appoint Hand. However, Roosevelt wanted younger men on the court and, moreover, was put off by Frankfurter’s pressure. As a consequence, Hand remained a circuit court judge until 1951, when he retired. Even if not appointed, he is widely considered to be the greatest judge never nominated to the Supreme Court and was the peer of justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis, and Benjamin Cardozo.
Hand’s opinions as a circuit court judge were encyclopedic in range. They comprised more than 2,000 opinions in 34 categories of legal subjects. One complicated decision involved copyright issues arising from the publication of a book, a play, and a movie depicting a real event. A year after taking the case (Sheldon v. Metro-Goldwyn Pictures), he decided in 1936 that the film had infringed on the book’s copyright because the movie had been based on the book and not the real events that had been the basis of the book.
Hand decided numerous cases involving monopolies, including one involving the Associated Press (AP) wire service. The government had charged the AP with violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Hand in United States v. Associated Press (1943) decided that the AP by refusing to give access to stories to competing newspapers was acting as a monopoly. The decision was a model for many future monopoly cases.
The philosophy of judicial restraint followed by Hand had been learned from James Bradley Thayer at Harvard Law School. Hand believed that judicial restraint was not an abdication of responsibility, nor was it intellectually sterile; rather, it was a matter of focusing on important questions of law within the law while allowing policy matters to be handled by the two other branches of government. He was opposed to the activism of William O. Douglas and Hugo Black. Hand’s opposition to imposing personal values had been expressed in 1905 in Lochner v. New York. There he was opposed to conservative values being imposed; in 1958 he was opposed to the Warren Court’s imposition of liberal values through judicial activism.
Hand lectured at Harvard in 1958 following his retirement. His lectures were later published as The Bill of Rights. His other nonlegal papers were published as The Spirit of Liberty. They reflected the speech that he had given at Grand Central Park in 1944 to 1.5 million people. The speech, “I Am an American Day,” expounded on the spirit of liberty. He was a member of the American Bar Association and the American Law Institute. Hand died on August 18, 1961, in New York City.
See also Constitutional Interpretation; Judicial Review
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1872-1961 US judge and jurist Born in Albany, New York State, into a dynasty of New York judges, he graduated from Harvard University and its Law Sch