5.5.5. The Midwest, 1925-1965: Key Legal Figures

Florence Allen (Ohio Supreme Court, 1922-1934)

  • Florence Allen is an important but often-overlooked figure in both legal history and American women’s history.  She broke the glass ceiling in spectacular fashion at several levels:  as the first female judge of an American trial court of general jurisdiction; as the first female supreme court justice; and as the first female federal judge.
  • Allen grew up in Utah, which was friendlier to women’s rights than the Allen family’s native Ohio.  After attending college, Allen experimented with careers as a concert pianist and social worker and eventually decided upon the law.  After completing her legal studies in New York she became active in the national woman suffrage movement; in 1915, she returned to Ohio where she became a leader and general counsel to the state suffrage movement and secured several important victories for suffrage in the Ohio supreme court.  After women obtained the vote in 1919, Allen put her political experience to good use.  She was elected a trial judge in Cleveland and in 1922, she secured election to the Ohio Supreme Court with relative ease and was re-elected in 1928.
  • Because Allen had a forceful personality and was perceived as having a “masculine mind,” she had relatively little trouble gaining acceptance by her male colleagues on the bench, who called her “Sister.”  She played an active role on the court, authoring important decisions on zoning laws, municipal bonds and other matters.  She was a liberal on free speech matters but unfortunately was also the author of a 1928 decision upholding segregation on a “separate but equal” basis in Ohio.
  • By the early 1930s Allen was ready for a new challenge.  She quietly lobbied for a federal judgeship; with support from Ohio’s congressional delegation, in 1934 she secured appointment by Franklin Roosevelt to the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Allen served on the court until her death in 1966; she authored important decisions upholding the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority and interpreting federal commercial legislation.  In her autobiography, To Do Justly, she provides a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of the pleasures and travails of being a women’s rights pioneer.

Maurice Sugar (Michigan – 1891-1974)

  • Michigan, the center of America’s auto industry, played a key role in the development of the modern American labor movement between 1930 and 1970, and Sugar was at the forefront of that movement.
  • Sugar was born in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and was exposed to the U.P.’s labor struggles at an early age.  He moved to Detroit with his family as a child; after receiving his legal training, he became a committed Socialist and union supporter.  He vehemently opposed the United States’ entry into World War I and was disbarred after serving a sentence for draft resistance, but he was eventually readmitted to practice with the help of Frank Murphy (later governor of Michigan and a U.S. Supreme Court justice). 
  • Starting in the early 1920s, Sugar specialized in representing unions and workers and gained national prominence for his expertise in finding ways around legal barriers to union activity, and in taking advantage of the new rights that federal and state labor laws gave workers in the 1930s.  From 1937 to 1946 he served as general counsel of the United Auto Workers, one of the largest unions in the country, and became a close associate of UAW president Walter Reuther.  Sugar did not forget his radical roots:  in 1937 he helped found the National Lawyers Guild, the preeminent national organization of lawyers on the left, and he remained a guiding force in the Guild for many years thereafter.

Walter Schaefer (Illinois Supreme Court, 1951-76)

  • Prior to 1920 the most common path to national prominence for state judges was public attention, usually achieved by the issuance of strongly-worded opinions or dissents on controversial subjects.  After 1920, more judges carved out an academic path to prominence by airing their views in books and law review articles and working through the American Law Institute and other organizations that seek to achieve reform by publishing model laws.  Schaefer was an early practitioner of the modern trend.
  • Schaefer was born in Michigan in 1904 and moved to Illinois as a child.  After graduating from law school at the beginning of the Depression, he took a job with Illinois’ legislative reference bureau, where he played a key role in drafting a comprehensive revision of the state’s criminal laws and spearheaded an effort to reform other parts of the Illinois statutes..  After working at several New Deal agencies in Washington, Schaefer accepted a law professorship at Northwestern Law School, where he developed an interest in civil liberties and became a nationally recognized scholar in that field as well as criminal law.
  • During the mid-20th century, an uneasy coalition of Democratic reformers and the Chicago machine dominated Illinois politics and provided a temporary opening for intellectuals such as Gov. Adlai Stevenson and Sen. Paul Douglas to achieve high office.  Stevenson, who felt an affinity to Prof. Schaefer, appointed him to Illinois’ supreme court, and Schaefer’s personal friendship with Chicago mayor Richard Daley helped keep him there.  During his tenure on the court, Schaefer continued to speak and write on subjects of interest to him, and he burnished his national reputation as an authority on criminal law and civil liberties.

George Currie (Wisconsin Supreme Court, 1951-1968)

  • During the 1950s and 1960s, state courts across the nation abolished traditional limitations on suing family members, charities and local government for injury.  Wisconsin was a leader in the field due in large part to Justice Currie’s efforts.
  • Currie was born in 1900; after obtaining his law degree, he spent 25 years practicing law in Sheboygan before his appointment to the Wisconsin supreme court.  After he joined the court, Currie became recognized as one of its leading intellects and he was assigned to write a series of opinions in which the court, after giving the state legislature an opportunity to act first (which the legislature ignored), abolished charitable immunity (1961), municipal immunity (1962) and in 1963, became the first in the nation to allow children to sue their parents.  The same year, Currie also authored an opinion making Wisconsin the first state to adopt a rule of contract law known as “promissory estoppel,” which allowed people to recover for broken promises even where the promises had not led to a final contract.  Currie also contributed to the court’s decision to impose strict liability on manufacturers of defective products (1967).
  • Currie was unexpectedly defeated for reelection in 1968.  After his retirement from the bench, he taught at the University of Wisconsin law school and was appointed by Richard Nixon to help develop a federally-funded legal services program – an act for which he won the enmity of then-California governor Ronald Reagan.

Florence Allen (Ohio) (courtesy Library of Congress)

Walter Schaefer (Illinois)

George Currie (Wisconsin)