History Thursday: The last Ohioan to reach the Supreme Court came by surprise

Potter Stewart, a federal judge from Cincinnati, was named to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1958 and confirmed the following year. Photo courtesy the Richmond (Va.) Times Dispatch, Oct. 8, 1958.

Judge Potter Stewart was at work one Monday afternoon when he got a surprise phone call.

It was the U.S. Attorney General on the line. Could Stewart leave town and travel to Washington D.C. that day?

Only if it was important, Stewart said. Oh, it was, the attorney general replied.

The Cincinnati judge wasn’t given a reason for the trip. But he had a hunch.

Stewart arrived at the White House the next morning, which was Oct. 7, 1958. He was told that Supreme Court Justice Harold Burton — a fellow Ohioan — had privately announced plans to retire. President Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted Stewart to fill the seat.

Busy with meetings all morning, it took until the afternoon for Stewart to call his wife, Mary Ann, and fill her in on his unexpected promotion to the nation’s highest bench.

At just 43, Stewart became the youngest member of the court by nearly a decade. The court was then led by Chief Justice Earl Warren. He didn’t have much to say to reporters when initially asked about his legal philosophy.

“I like to be thought of as a lawyer,” Stewart said.

A news report in the Richmond (Virginia) Times Dispatch noted Stewart had voted in 1956 to order the integration of African-American students into elementary schools at Hillsboro, Ohio. The school district there had packed all Black students into one building and claimed it would integrate once new buildings could be constructed. 

Stewart, writing the majority opinion on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, ordered immediate integration.

In a separate case from his time on the appellate court, Stewart angered journalists by upholding the conviction of a newspaper columnist sentenced to jail for refusing to divulge a source. Stewart reportedly called the freedom of the press “precious and vital,” but added “it is not an absolution.”

Stewart was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 1959 by a 70-17 vote.

Perhaps the most famous case involving Stewart came in 1964. An Ohio movie theater manager was convicted of obscenity for showing a French film called “The Lovers.”

The Supreme Court overturned the conviction, with Stewart joining the majority. Stewart wrote his own concurrence of the ruling on the view that obscenity laws are limited to “hard-core pornography.”

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description,” Stewart wrote, “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.”

Stewart stepped down from the Supreme Court in 1981 and his seat was filled by Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve as an associate justice. 

Stewart died in 1985 at the age of 70. The Cincinnati courthouse which houses the Sixth District Court of Appeals was later named for him.

THE MORNING NEWSLETTER
Subscribe now.
HELP US GROW
Make a tax-deductible donation.
Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.