Childhood & Early Life
Billings Learned Hand was born on January 27, 1872 as the second of two children to Samuel Hand, a successful lawyer and Lydia Hand. At 14, he lost his father and was brought up by his mother.
His self-confidence was undermined by his over-protective female relatives including his mother, aunt and older sister. He began to study in The Albany Academy from age seven, and found the teachers and curriculum dull.
He joined Harvard College in 1889, and studied philosophy and economics from his sophomore year. He was taught by distinguished philosophers such as William James, Josiah Royce, and George Santayana.
A serious boy, he found campus life difficult. However, things improved, and he became a member of the Hasty Pudding Club and was elected president of The Harvard Advocate, a student literary magazine.
A diligent student, he was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa which was a prestigious society of scholarly students, and received both his master’s and bachelor’ s from Harvard Law College by 1896.
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Hand joined his uncle’s law firm in Albany and then became a partner in a law firm, but was unable to attract clients and found work boring. He was, however, determined to succeed.
He indulged in writing articles, teaching part-time at Albany Law School, and showed interest in politics. Although hailing from a family of Democrats, he voted for Republican Theodore Roosevelt as Governor of New York.
In 1902, he moved to New York City. While the legal work continued to be drab, he began to associate with intellectuals and reform activists. He managed to catch the attention of the influential attorney, Charles Culp Bulingham.
Endorsed by Bulingham, he was appointed a district judge in New York City, and served in this position from 1909 to 1924. The field of Patent law interested him more than the bankruptcy cases.
In the 1913 United States v. Kennerley case, disputing the soundness of the outdated Hicklin Rule, he declared that the book, ‘Hagar Revelly’ intended to educate women in social hygiene and was not obscene.
Hoping to influence Theodore Roosevelt on the need to reform the judiciary to benefit the disadvantaged, he joined Roosevelt’s Progressive Party but the Democratic Party won the 1912 elections.
Realizing that the Progressive Party had become redundant, he began to write articles for the intellectual leader, Herbert Croly's magazine, The New Republic. He sympathized with the Allies when WWI broke out in 1914.
His ruling in The Masses case did not go down well with the government. Despite being the senior most judge of his district, he was sidelined for promotion to the Second Circuit in 1917.
In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge appointed him to the Second Circuit. He had the support of not only the President, but also that of Chief Justice William Howard Taft.
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He favored Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to tide over the Great Depression, but was wary of its misuse, and reproved Roosevelt’s efforts to fill the Supreme Court with New Deal supporters.
When the case of United States v. Schechter came before him in 1935, he ruled that since the Schechter poultry firm did business within the state, the National Industrial Recovery act did not apply.
He continued in support of Roosevelt during the WWII. He was deeply suspicious of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was critical of the Nuremberg war-crimes trials.
In the post-War period, he was alarmed with the rise of Communism in Russia under Stalin, and the Cold War. But he loathed any attempt to curtail freedom by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist drive.
He reaffirmed the lower court’s verdict in the 1950 United States v. Dennis case, in which eleven members of U.S Communist Party were accused of calling for the violent ouster of the American Government.
In 1951, he retired from active duty, but continued to serve, actively as before, on the bench. He published The Spirit of Liberty, which sold well, but he refused the royalties that accrued.
In 1953, he was the lone voice of dissent in the 3-member bench Second Circuit’s decision to affirm the perjury conviction of William Remington, a government economist accused of Communist sympathies and activities.
In the 1917 Masses Publishing Co. v. Patten case, Hand ruled that the journal, The Masses, should not be stopped from distribution. Though his ruling was upturned, it is remarkable for upholding free expression.
In the 1950 United States v. Coplon case before the Second Circuit bench, he said that Coplon’s warrantless arrest, and the failure to disclose all the wiretap records necessitated the reversal of her conviction.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1902, Learned Hand married Frances Fincke, whom he first met while holidaying at La Malbaie, a Quebec resort. The couple had three daughters: Mary Deshon, Frances, and Constance.
He blamed himself for being insensitive to his wife’s need when she became close to Louis Dow, a professor and resident of New Hampshire. After Dow’s death in 1944, the Hands revived their love.
This eminent American judge proposed a test to determine the standard of care for claims of damages in cases concerning negligence, now called the calculus of negligence.
According to this judge, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no Constitution, no court, can even do much to help it.”