This article is from TOS Vol. 4, No. 2. The full contents of the issue are listed here.
Justice Holmes and the Empty Constitution
On April 17, 1905, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. issued his dissenting opinion in the case of Lochner v. New York.1 At a mere 617 words, the dissent was dwarfed by the 9,000 words it took for the Supreme Courts eight other Justices to present their own opinions. But none of this bothered Holmes, who prided himself on writing concisely. The vulgar hardly will believe an opinion important unless it is padded like a militia brigadier general, he once wrote to a friend. You know my view on that theme. The little snakes are the poisonous ones.2
Of the many little snakes that would slither from Justice Holmess pen during his thirty years on the Supreme Court, the biting, eloquent dissent in Lochner carried perhaps the most powerful venom. A dissent is a judicial opinion in which a judge explains his disagreement with the other judges whose majority votes control a cases outcome. As one jurist put it, a dissent is an appeal . . . to the intelligence of a future day, when a later decision may possibly correct the error into which the dissenting judge believes the court to have been betrayed.3 Holmess Lochner dissent, though little noticed at first, soon attained celebrity status and eventually became an icon. Scholars have called it the greatest judicial opinion of the last hundred years and a major turning point in American constitutional jurisprudence.4 Today, his dissent not only exerts strong influence...