United States Supreme Court Associate Justice. Born in South Lee, Massachusetts, he studied law, and was admitted to the Michigan Bar Association in Detroit in 1860. In 1861 he was appointed deputy U.S. marshal there. Three years later, he became assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, serving from 1863 to 1868. By 1875, he had become the leading authority on maritime law in the Great Lakes, and had published an important volume of admiralty case reports from the Great Lakes district. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him to the United States Supreme Court. Working hard during his tenure, he reduced the court's backlog cases, which were four years in the rears. In 1894 he controversially argued that people of annexed territories were not entitled to constitutionally guaranteed rights and privileges in the Downes v. Bidwell law case. Another important decision was a dissent in the 1895 Pollock v. Farmers' Loan and Trust Company, in which the Federal Income Tax Act of 1894 was struck down. His most important decision was in 1896 in the case Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the legality of segregation as long as facilities were kept separate but equal. This ruling upheld Louisiana's 1890 Separate Car Act. The state Supreme Court had ruled earlier that the law could not be applied to interstate travel. Homer Plessy, a light-skinned African American, was arrested in Louisiana for riding in a first-class train car for "Whites Only." The court's ruling was rendered on May 18, 1896, but equality did not exist then or in the years that followed. With seven votes for Ferguson and one vote against, Brown wrote the ruling. Despite never using the term "separate, but equal," the court's ruling established that principle as a means of justifying segregation. United States Supreme Court Justice John Harlan I was the only vote against the ruling, thus was labeled with the nickname of "The Great Dissenter." This standard dominated civil rights cases until 1954, when it was overruled by the court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. On January 6, 2022, Louisiana Governor Bel Edwards signed the posthumous pardon for Plessy near the site of the 1896 arrest with the statement "there is no expiration on justice." Plessy, Ferguson and Harlan's descendants were present to witness this document's signing. In 1906 he retired from the court when he reached the age of 77.
Bio by: Linda Davis
AN ASSOCIATE JUSTICE OF THE
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
INTEGER VITAE SCELERISQUE PURUS
(Upright of life and free from vice)
Caroline Pitts Brown
1843–1901 (m. 1864)