Stanley F. Reed: Man of Maysville


I recently took research foray into the lovely Ohio river town of Maysville, Kentucky. (For some reason, my trip did not attract the same attention as that of George Clooney and Rene Zellwenger--who premiered their new film, Leatherheads, in George’s Aunt Rosemary’s hometown--or that of Hillary Clinton). Maysville is one of the oldest settlements in Kentucky; its role in U.S. history is as the key terminus in the network of roads to the American West in Henry’s Clay’s ill-fated American System. President Andrew Jackson, who despised both Clay and federal government expenditures, killed the plan and it would not be until President Dwight Eisenhower funded the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 (popular name for the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956) before a federal transportation scheme this comprehensive would be realized.

While I was there, I took the opportunity to visit the well preserved law office of US Supreme Court Justice Stanley F. Reed. (This is in stark contrast to the St. Louis pizzeria that marks Justice Brandeis first office). I spent a little too much time in the library of the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center to visit Reed's grave, but there are really nice pics on Find-a-Grave.

With the exception of obtaining a degree from the Sorbonne in Paris (the one in France, not Bourbon County), Reed’s early career was pretty typical for a Kentucky lawyer of his time. He read law and was admitted to the bar on 1910 and set up a practice in downtown Maysville near the historic Mason County courthouse. He was elected to the Kentucky General Assembly in 1912, where he served two terms in the house before enlisting in the US Army when America entered WWI. He returned to Kentucky after the war and built a corporate practice with clients like the Kentucky Burley Tobacco Growers Association. Along the way he purchased a large Mason County farm where he raised blue-ribbon Holsteins.

Reed's interest in farming and expertise in the law of agricultural cooperatives made him a natural candidate to join the Federal Farm Board in 1929 as general-counsel. Reed, a Democrat, went on to serve in the same position in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in the Roosevelt administration, where he helped develop the New Deal's commodity price support policies. In 1935, he was named the Solicitor-General, the third Kentuckian (after Benjamin H. Bristow and UofL law school alumnus William Bullitt Marshall) to serve in that position. (Pop quiz: Reed is one of four future-Supreme Court justices to wear the striped pants and grey morning coat, who are the other three? Hint: One of them is NOT Robert Bork).

In 1938 Reed was appointed to the Supreme Court (the last justice to serve without a law degree; he nicely bookends his fellow Kentuckian John Marshall Harlan, who was the first). He replaced George Sutherland, one of the dying breed of reactionary justices whose majority FDR's appointments had erased. Reed was a solid New Dealer on the court, despite some conservative leanings on the establishment clause and on the incorporation doctrine (which holds that the adoption of the 14th amendment made the federal Bill of Rights apply to the states). He was a workhorse who crafted over 300 opinions in his two decades on the court. Although racial covenants in some of his Kentucky properties caused him to recuse himself in Shelley v. Kramer in 1948, he was in the majority in several of the cases in the 1940s and 1950s that affirmed the civil rights of African Americans, including the 1944 case of Smith v. Allwright, which he authored. Nonetheless, Reed was thought to have had problems with aspects of the holding in Brown v. Board of Education, and may have even considered dissenting, but Warren brought him around and the unanimity of the decision gave it great moral authority. (See the excellent Robert H. Jackson Center sponsored symposium, Supreme Court Law Clerks' Recollections of Brown v. Board of Education, <>, for an interesting behind-the-scenes view of the case from one of Reed's law clerks, Jack Fassett).

Reed retired to his Mason County farm in 1957, where he continued to raise prize dairy cows until shortly before his death in a NY nursing home in 1980.