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First Supreme Court Nominee Appears before the Judiciary Committee

January 28, 1925

Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana

On January 5, 1925, President Calvin Coolidge nominated Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone to a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. Commentators around the nation readily agreed that Stone's character, learning, and temperament perfectly suited him to the job.

Within days, however, a complication arose that threatened Stone's chances for an easy Senate confirmation. The source of the trouble was Senator Burton K. Wheeler, a progressive Democrat—and former U.S. attorney—from Montana. The previous year, Wheeler had launched an investigation to determine why Stone's predecessor, Attorney General Harry Daugherty, had failed to prosecute government officials implicated in the Teapot Dome oil-leasing scandal. As a result of Wheeler's probe, Daugherty resigned in March 1924. A month later, with Stone settling in as attorney general, a federal grand jury in Montana indicted Senator Wheeler on charges related to the conduct of his private law practice. Seeing the indictment as an effort to discredit his continuing investigation of the Justice Department, Wheeler asked the Senate to examine the charges against him. Following a two-month inquiry and without waiting for the Montana court to dispose of the case, the Senate overwhelmingly exonerated Wheeler.

The Wheeler case tormented Attorney General Stone for months. Influential friends of Wheeler urged Stone to drop both the Montana case and new information that led Wheeler's opponents to seek a second indictment. Stone explained that he felt honor bound to pursue the second indictment, even though it involved a sitting senator whom the Senate had recently investigated and cleared. The Senate, he said, "is just not the place to determine the guilt or innocence of a man charged with crime."

On January 24, 1925, five days after the Senate Judiciary Committee had recommended Stone's confirmation, Senator Thomas Walsh—Wheeler's Montana colleague and legal counsel—convinced the Senate to return the nomination to committee for further review. Although President Coolidge refused to withdraw the nomination, he agreed to an unprecedented compromise. He would allow Stone to become the first Supreme Court nominee in history to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee. On January 28, 1925, Stone's masterful performance during five hours of public session testimony cleared the way for his quick confirmation.

Senator Wheeler soon won acquittal of all charges. Not until 1955, however, did the Senate Judiciary Committee routinely adopt the practice, based on the precedent established by the Stone nomination, of requiring all Supreme Court nominees to appear in person.