Hugo LaFayette Black (February 27, 1886 - September 25, 1971) was a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1937 - 1971).
Black was born in Harlan, Alabama, a rural town in Clay County. After a brief stint in medical school, Black earned his law degree from the University of Alabama in 1906. While practicing law, he was noted for his success in workers' compensation cases.
After serving stateside as an Army captain in World War I, and as Police Court judge in Birmingham and Solicitor for Jefferson County, Black ran for a seat in the United States Senate. Since in 1920s Alabama the Ku Klux Klan was such a politically active force, Black, as insurance for his upcoming senate race, joined the organization and was an active member for two years, but avoiding involvement in the violence sponsored by the group.
Black won a seat in the Senate in 1926 and remained for eleven years. While there, he was a staunch supporter of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, and was to remain so while a justice on the Supreme Court.
Appointed to the Supreme Court by Roosevelt, he was confirmed by the Senate to replace Justice Willis Van Devanter and was sworn in on August 19, 1937. His opinion of the majority, ruling in favor of four African-Americans who had been coerced by police into murder confessions, in Chambers v. Florida, 309 US 227 (1940), made clear that his previous connections with the Klan were not to have an effect on his performance in the Court. His opposition to state-sponsored racial discrimination was confirmed by his opinion in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which invalidated a racial restriction on the sale of land, and he joined the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education. (1954).
He was an active and enthusiastic supporter of the Court's expansion of the rights of criminal defendants during the tenure of Earl Warren, at times leading the charge, as with his majority opinion in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), which guaranteed the right of all defendants to be represented by an attorney counsel in criminal trials. On the other hand, he refused to join in the efforts of the justices on the Court who sought to abolish capital punishment in the United States, which efforts succeeded (temporarily) in the term immediately following Black's death.
During the anti-Communist McCarthy era of the 1950s, Black became known as a defender of First Amendment rights, perhaps most notably in his dissent in Dennis v. United States (341 US 494 1951), and would continue in this throughout the rest of his career on the Court.
Black was noted for his consistent adherence to the theory that the text of the Constitution is absolutely determinative on any question calling for judicial interpretation. His insistence on textual analysis rather than on the process-oriented jurisprudence of many of his colleagues makes it difficult to characterize him as a "liberal" or a "conservative" as those terms are generally understood.
Black resigned from the Court on September 17, 1971. President Nixon appointed Lewis F. Powell to his seat. He died eight days after resigning. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Carl Sagan said of Black:
"When permitted to listen to alternative opinions and engage in substantive debate, people have been known to change their minds. It can happen. For example, Hugo Black, in his youth, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan; he later became a Supreme Court justice and was one of the leaders in the historic Supreme Court decisions, partly based on the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, that affirmed the civil rights of all Americans: It was said that when he was a young man he dressed up in white robes and scared black folks; when he got older, he dressed up in black robes and scared white folks." The Demon-Haunted World p.431 ISBN 0345409469