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Hugo Black Lobby Investigation

July 11, 1935

Senator Hugo Black

Hugo Lafayette Black, one of the nation's great senators and Supreme Court justices, was born in 1886 in rural central Alabama. When he was only six years old, little Hugo decided that listening to lawyers argue cases in a local courthouse was more fun than playing schoolyard games. He loved politics and declared himself a Democrat almost before he could pronounce the word. Upon graduation from the University of Alabama Law School, Black became a police court judge and then a noted labor lawyer.

In 1923, when the Ku Klux Klan controlled the voting machinery in nearly every Alabama county, the politically ambitious Black made a decision that he spent the rest of his life regretting. He joined the Klan. With many Alabama lawyers and jurors members of the Klan, Black equated membership with courtroom success. Realizing his error, he soon resigned, but he enlisted help from Klan leaders in his successful race for the U.S. Senate in 1926.

When the Democrats took control of the Senate in 1933, at the beginning of the New Deal, Hugo Black drew on his skills as a prosecuting attorney to become nationally famous as a congressional investigator. In his aggressive questioning style, he gave witnesses the impression he already had the facts and wished them only to confirm them for the record.

In 1935, Black gained headlines as chairman of a special Senate investigation of public utility company lobbyists. Congress was then considering legislation designed to break up the giant "power trusts." The Senate inquiry unleashed on members' offices a blizzard of protesting telegrams. Black suspected that the utility lobbyists had orchestrated the campaign. In response, he introduced a bill that required all lobbyists to register their names, salaries, expenses, and objectives with the secretary of the Senate. By subpoenaing lobbyists, company officials, and telegraph office records, he was able to prove that of some 15,000 telegrams sent to Capitol Hill, only three were paid for by private citizens. The rest, he said, were the work of a "high-powered, deceptive, telegram-fixing, letter-framing, Washington-visiting $5 million lobby."

Black's investigation resulted in the first congressional system of lobbyist registration. It also helped him win Franklin Roosevelt's first appointment to the Supreme Court. Despite lingering controversy over his early Klan membership, the former police court judge, between 1937 and 1971, compiled a record as the Court's greatest civil libertarian and defender of the Bill of Rights.