Potter Stewart '33 was one of the giants of the Supreme Court in the 20th century. Born in 1915, he was the son of James Garfield Stewart and Harriet Loomis Potter. James was the Republican mayor of Cincinnati and later served as a chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court.
At Hotchkiss, Stewart was enormously popular with his classmates. He was a team player and was voted "the wittiest, most likely to succeed, and the biggest bluffer." Described as quite "sophisticated," Stewart was active in drama, sang in the Glee Club, served as associate editor of the Record, and won the prize for being the best French student. He was a member of the student council, a class officer, a member of Cum Laude, and class historian; and he won the Headmaster's Prize for having the highest academic average over three years.
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Yale University in 1937, Stewart went on to Yale Law School, from which he earned his degree in 1941. He was also a fellow of Cambridge University from 1937-1938. At Yale Law, where he was editor of the Yale Law Journal, he attended classes at the same time as Gerald R. Ford, Cyrus R. Vance, and Byron R. White, who would later become his colleague on the Supreme Court. He emerged from Yale with many honors.
During World War II, Stewart went into the Navy and became a naval officer. He served on a gasoline tanker in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, attaining the rank of lieutenant with three battle stars. According to his late classmate, John Field, Stewart described his time in the service as "floating around on a sea of 100-octane gas, bored to death 99 percent of the time, and scared to death one percent." After the war, Stewart returned to Cincinnati, where he entered private practice and local politics. He joined the law firm of Dinsmore & Shohl, LLP, in Cincinnati and in 1954, at the age of 39, was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. In 1958, he was nominated by President Dwight Eisenhower to replace Justice Harold Hitz Burton on the Supreme Court, where he became one of the youngest justices in history. Stewart would go on to serve until his retirement in 1981. His 23-year tenure on the Supreme Court coincided with the eras of Chief Justices Earl Warren and Warren Burger.
Though described as ideologically conservative and known to side with conservative justices on equal protections, Justice Stewart would often vote with the liberal justices on First Amendment issues; he was thus known as a centrist on the Court. He will long be remembered for his concurrence in a pornography case, Jacobellis v. Ohio. Unable to formulate a definition of pornography, he declared, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within [the term 'hard-core pornography']; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that." He went on to defend the movie in question against further censorship.
In 1972 Stewart joined the decision in Furman v. Georgia that invalidated all death penalty laws. Four years later he joined in the Court's decision in Gregg v. Georgia, upholding the revised capital punishment legislation adopted in a majority of the states. He was also a key mover behind the Court's decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, which recognized the right to abortion under the "Right of Privacy."
For a time it was thought that President Richard Nixon would appoint Stewart to the post of chief justice, but Stewart asked Nixon to have his name removed from consideration as he did not want to appear again before the Senate in the confirmation process. Warren Burger was appointed as chief justice instead. Stewart went on to play a significant role in formulating the Court's unanimous opinion in Nixon v. United States (1974), which ordered President Nixon to surrender to the special prosecutor the tape recordings whose disclosure later led Nixon to resign. Stewart remained on the Court until his retirement in July 1981. He was succeeded by Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the Court.
In recognition of his many accomplishments soon after his appointment to the Supreme Court, Yale honored Stewart with an honorary degree: "The promise of your record at Yale has been abundantly fulfilled in your career. Lawyer, civic leader, Judge of the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, you have vigorously begun your most challenging work as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. In that high tribunal it is clear that you will continue to be an influential force sustaining the Constitutional tradition by which we live. With special pride Yale confers upon you the degree of Doctor of Laws."
In reflection about his time in Washington, Stewart said, "As to my work, I sometimes feel disgustingly smug about it, because I think there is no greater public job to which an American lawyer can aspire - offering, as it does, a lifelong opportunity for service to both his profession and his nation. I do not for a moment mean to imply that life on the Court is without frustration and sometimes extreme difficulties. But it is a tremendous and continuing challenge to be a part of an institution which over the years has contributed so much to the preservation of a society of freedom under law."
In 1959, Stewart was presented with The Hotchkiss School Alumni Award, the School's highest honor. Potter Stewart graduated from Hotchkiss 85 years ago, but he will be long-remembered as one of the School's most influential alumni. He died on December 7, 1985.
*Note: Since 2007, when we began the Alum of the Month feature, the honor has occasionally been extended posthumously. In that spirit, this month's installment recognizes one of the School's most revered graduates on the 60th anniversary of his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.