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Holmes, Oliver Wendell. 17" x 13" .1995. Collection of Sam Davis. Davis Saperstein Salomon. Teaneck, NJ.

A former Civil War hero, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was a long-serving United States Supreme Court Associate Justice known for often opposing the decisions of his fellow justices. He remains one of the most regularly cited justices in the history of the Supreme Court. 


The Civil War and Early Legal Career

Holmes left Harvard College to serve in the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. Although he was wounded three times and suffered several near-fatal illnesses, he retired after three years and returned home to Boston.


After recovering from his wounds and illness during the war, Holmes re-enrolled in Harvard Law School, clerked in a law office, and was eventually admitted to the Bar in 1866. He practiced in a small firm in Boston, handling admiralty and commercial cases. While in private practice, Holmes became a prolific legal scholar, writing on law and government. His most famous work is The Common Law, where he posited that, "The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience."


The Supreme Court

In 1882, Holmes returned to Harvard as a professor, but was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court just a few weeks later and eventually became the Chief Justice. 

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841 - 1935)

In 1902, Holmes was nominated for the United States Supreme Court by President Theodore Roosevelt....Holmes wrote that, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater and causing panic.”

Holmes' most well-known quote came from Schenck v. the United States, where he wrote for a unanimous Court that the First Amendment provides a limited rather than an absolute right to free speech. In justifying the convictions of Schenck and his co-defendant for distributing leaflets for protest against the draft, Holmes wrote that, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater and causing panic.”

Holmes also created the doctrine which came to be known as "fruit of the poisonous tree," which held that any evidence obtained directly or indirectly from an illegal search would be inadmissible in court. Holmes held that allowing evidence from illegally seized files to be introduced in court would encourage law enforcement to circumvent the proscriptions of the Fourth Amendment and must, therefore, be banned as evidence.


Holmes retired from the United States Supreme Court in 1932 at the age of ninety and died two days before his ninety-fourth birthday. Interestingly, Holmes left his estate – including his bloody and torn uniform from the Civil War and part of the ammunition that had wounded him – to the United States government.

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