Paul Elisha: Billings Learned Hand

Dec 3, 2013

What a wonderful surprise, to begin this bleak, unpromising December of the year, 2013 and learn, that one’s most admired jurist was a native of New York’s Capitol City; born and raised an Albanian, who began his education there (at Albany Academy); even entered the practice of Law, there, such was this commentator’s happy discovery, about Billings Learned Hand.  How heartening, to discover that this nationally admired jurist and legal word-smith shaped the beliefs and thinking of the most important Americans of his time, including several Presidents and Nobel Prize winning economists.

Though fate denied him a seat on the nation’s highest court, he was one of its most quoted sources and eventual persuader of some of its most important decisions.  For this devotee, his most significant statement was the reminder that Americans had much freedom and many rights, all conferred with a very cogent and powerful restraint.  Addressing the subject of organized religion and its prejudices, he reminded its predicators: “Your right to make a fist and shake it, ends at the tip of my nose.”

Hand’s philosophic and practical development serendipitously mirrored that of the American nation, itself.  As a youth, his family’s rigorous involvement in the Protestant Church and its teachings shaped his own beliefs and related activities.  Later, his collegiate studies with inspirational philosophers like William James, Josiah Royce and George Santayana not only broadened his views but strongly re-directed his beliefs toward a more liberal slant.  They peaked with his adoption of many of the views of Herbert Croly’s Agnosticism. This naturally affected his position on the Constitutional separation of Church and State.  He consistently argued for “judicial restraint,” in any interpretation of the Constitution.

Nominated by President Coolidge as Judge of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, in 1909 (its youngest) and serving as its Senior Justice until President Taft named him to head the U.S. Southern District Court of New York, in 1924, which he led, with part-time leadership stints until his death, in 1961) Hand became the most quoted jurist in the nation, even by members of the high court, to which he was never elevated. He never spoke of this but it was rumored, pure politics was the reason.  It never, though, deterred him from championing the truths for which he was known.

Speaking to the SUNY Board of Regents, in 1952, Hand said: “I’d rather take my chance that some traitors escape detection, than spread abroad a spirit of suspicion which accepts rumor and gossip in place of un-intimidated inquiry.”  Continuing, he observed: “…That community is already in the process of dissolution where each eyes his neighbor as a possible enemy, where denunciation without specifics displaces evidence; where orthodoxy chokes freedom of dissent.”  Oh, that we might find such words to guide us, not just in Albany but nation-wide, today, when they’re so sorely needed.

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