CiteNow!Download PDF

Lurton, Horace Harmon

Justice photo

Birth: February 26, 1844, Newport, Kentucky.

Education: Douglas University (University of Chicago), 1860; Cumberland Law School, L.B., 1867.

Official Positions: Chancellor in equity, 1875–1878; judge, Tennessee Supreme Court, 1886–1893; judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, 1893–1909.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated associate justice by President William Howard Taft, December 13, 1909, to replace Rufus W. Peckham, who had died; confirmed by the Senate, December 20, 1909, by a voice vote; took judicial oath January 3, 1910; served until July 12, 1914; replaced by James C. McReynolds, nominated by President Woodrow Wilson.

Death: July 12, 1914, Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Participation in Key Cases
Opinions Written
Learn more about Supreme Court Justices

Learn More About This Supreme Court Justice


Document Outline
Horace Harmon Lurton
Noteworthy Opinions

Horace Harmon Lurton

Horace Lurton was one of the last men appointed to the Supreme Court to have served in the Civil War. Although only eigh-teen years of age when the war broke out, he joined the Fifth Tennessee Regular Infantry. Captured in 1862, he escaped from a Union prison and joined the guerrilla forces led by Gen. John Morgan. Morgan's Raiders harassed Union forces and raided supply installations until July 1863, when most of the unit was captured. Once again Lurton found himself a prisoner of war. Suffering from a lung disease, he was released shortly before the war's end.

On his release, Lurton embarked on a career as prudent as his youth had been daring. After completing his education at Cumberland Law School in 1867, he entered a successful practice in Clarksville, Tennessee. He served a stint as a trial judge from 1875 to 1878, returned to private practice, and was then elected to the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1886. He had just become chief justice of that court in 1893 when President Grover Cleveland selected him for the federal court of appeals. Lurton served on the Sixth Circuit with future Supreme Court justice William Day, and future president and chief justice William Howard Taft. It was there that he had his most productive years. Certainly, he was highly regarded. Theodore Roosevelt seriously considered Lurton, a southern Democrat, for the Supreme Court in 1906 but opted instead for a nominee from his own party, William H. Moody. Three years later, however, President Taft made Lurton his first appointment to the Court.

At the time of his appointment, Lurton was sixty-six years old. He served on the Court for only four years, writing just ninety-seven opinions, none of which was a landmark case, and he rarely expressed a written dissent or concurrence. Both on the Sixth Circuit and in the Supreme Court, he was assigned cases that often involved complex questions of financial relations or antitrust. Demonstrating respect for precedent, his opinions tended to trace earlier case law in detail. Professionalism muted expression of a personal philosophy in his writing, which, if anything, reflected a tempered conservatism.

That conservatism was apparent in opinions involving economic regulations. In Heaton-Peninsular Button-Fastener Co. v. Eureka Specialty Co. (1896), a Sixth Circuit case, Lurton discounted the argument that certain contracts could be against public policy. “If there is one thing which, more than another, public policy requires,” he wrote, “it is that men of full age and competent understanding shall have utmost liberty of contracting.” His language left little doubt that Lurton subscribed to liberty of contract, a theory the Court used to oversee state regulations. Yet he was not quick to invalidate state regulations. On the circuit court, for example, he upheld statutory mechanics' and materialmen's lien laws against charges that they violated liberty of contract. On the basis of his voting record, Justice Lurton appeared even more sympathetic to federal economic regulation. He voted with the majority that upheld a federal employer liability insurance statute in the Second Employer Liability Case (1912), strengthened the Pure Food and Drug Act in Hipolite Egg Co. v. United States (1911), and expanded the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission in the Minnesota Rate Cases (1913).

Lurton's most significant opinions dealt with antitrust. Henry v. A.B. Dick Co. (1912) involved the sale of patented duplicating machines. As a condition of sale, the Dick company required purchasers to use only ink and supplies it made. Henry, who sold another company's ink, claimed that this condition amounted to a restraint of trade. Lurton disagreed. The company had a patent on the machine, he reasoned. The very purpose of patent law is monopoly, and the sale of ink is closely enough linked to the patented product to be justified. The decision in A.B. Dick restricted the impact of antitrust laws, but some of Lurton's other opinions, such as Park v. Hartman (1907) and United States v. Terminal Railroad Assn. (1912), demonstrated his willingness to enforce antitrust law in many circumstances.

Although the record is slim, Lurton's conservative inclination was more evident in civil rights matters. Karem v. United States (1903), a case decided by the Sixth Circuit, invalidated a federal statute that made it a crime to conspire to keep black citizens from voting. The statute, Lurton reasoned, was inappropriate under the Fifteenth Amendment because it governed acts of individuals rather than those of the state. Later, in Bailey v. Alabama (1911), he joined Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in dissent when the majority overruled a state peonage law.

What stands out most in Lurton's record, however, is moderation. Not even his most significant opinions broke new legal ground. By the time he applied it in Karem, for example, the state action doctrine was well established. Rather than an innovative application of antitrust law, Henry v. A. B. Dick reflected a judicious weighing of the purpose of antitrust against the purpose of patent law. By all accounts, Horace Lurton was the consummate professional judge.


The best available biography is James F. Watts Jr., “Horace Harmon Lurton,” in Friedman and Israel, Justices, vol. 3, 1847. A collection of Justice Lurton's correspondence is held by the Library of Congress.

Noteworthy Opinions

Karem v. United States, 121 F. 250 (6th Circ. 1903)

Henry v. A.B. Dick Co., 224 U.S. 1 (1912)

United States v. Terminal Railroad Assn., 224 U.S. 383 (1912)


Document Citation
Lurton, Horace Harmon, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 323 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18168-979356
Document URL: