Hon. Pierce Butler of U.S. Supreme Court Speaks at Dedication of St. Louis Civil Courts Building

The following article, containing remarks by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Pierce Butler at the dedication of the St. Louis Civil Courts Building, appeared in the Missouri Bar Journal in 1930.


by Hon. Pierce Butler

At the dedication on June 21, 1930, of the new Civil Courts Building in St. Louis, Mr. Justice Butler, Circuit Justice for the Eighth Circuit, spoke in part as follows:

“If adequate forces for detection of crime and apprehension of criminals faithfully support competent prosecuting attorneys in trials before intelligent and unbiased jurors rightly guided by the presiding judge, miscarriages of justice will be few.”

Early in his address he expressed his pleasure at the invitation to take part in the ceremonies.

Exceptional Occasion

“Judges generally, and I think wisely, refrain from much speaking,” he said. “When one is required to give consideration to both sides of a question, he properly may not indulge in sallies of the imagination. Since becoming a member of the court I have generally asked to be excused from taking prominent part in public ceremonies. But in this instance the circumstances warrant an exception.”

Alluding to the Louisiana Purchase he said this great acquisition was “in importance second only to the Declaration of Independence.”

“The freedom of action that rests upon just laws and is sustained by stable government is the greatest possession of the people,” he continued. “It is a long stride from the governmental conceptions of the Grand Monarch, of Napoleon or of George III, to those on which rests this great Union of States.

Peaceful Means

“The idea that the king is the state passed; the principles established by our Constitution were made dominant here. That step was accomplished immediately and by peaceful means. Attracted by the blessings of self government, large numbers of men and women from all parts of Europe came to make this their own country. They were among the earliest pioneers here, and helped to lay the foundation. They and their descendants constitute an important part of the present population.

“This occasion is one of notable significance. The people of St. Louis have provided this great building for their own use in the administration of justice according to their own laws ― the Constitution and laws of the United States and of the State of Missouri.

“I am proud of the great Middlewest. In all the things essential to the rugged devotion to country and permanent civilization there has been here most encouraging advance. The days of the earliest pioneers in these parts are not yet remote. In the whole history of the human race there never has been in like period of time greater progress than that which has taken place in the Mississippi Valley.

Eminent Leader

“Naturally members of our profession had prominent part in the organization of government and in the maintenance of law and order in the new states. Some of them attained eminent leadership in the nation. There are many who, by reason of exemplary conduct and outstanding professional work inspire succeeding generations of lawyers.

“I cannot refrain from mentioning some of the great Federal Judges who, in my own time at the bar, served in the old Eighth Circuit, which included most of the Louisiana Purchase. Mr. Justice Miller was accustomed to hold court in this circuit. So was Mr. Justice Brewer. After distinguished service on the bench, John F. Dillon returned to the bar and was active in the practice.

“Among the Circuit Judges serving as members of the Circuit Court of Appeals were Henry C. Caldwell of Arkansas, Walter H. Sanborn of Minnesota, Amos M. Thayer and Elmer B. Adams of Missouri — both had been judges of the Circuit Court in St. Louis — and William C. Hook of Kansas. Mr. Justice Van Devanter of Wyoming was a circuit judge here when called to the Supreme bench where he now serves.

Equal to Any in U.S.

“Lawyers of the generation now passing looked to these great men with confidence and affectionate admiration. The Federal Courts in that circuit were the equal of any in the United States. Their faithful adherence to the law made for stability of government and did much to create confidence and establish credit in this part of the country. Their good work will long serve to encourage and guide their successors. The people are under great obligation to them.

“One of the most important duties that rests upon courts is to decline to give effect to invalid legislative enactments. It is to be remembered that no court has power per se to review legislation for the mere purpose of determining whether it conflicts with the Federal Constitution. That question may be considered in the courts only when in a justiciable issue some direct injury is sought to be justified by such an act. In deciding between parties, courts are required to ascertain and enforce the law applicable to the controversy. They must disregard an unconstitutional act, which otherwise would prevent the enforcement of a legal right.

Sorry Plight

“All courts, State as well as Federal, are bound to give effect to the Constitution and the laws of the United States. The people would be in a sorry plight if they were not permitted to maintain rights that are protected by the supreme law of the land. It has often been said and it is always to be remembered that this is a government of laws and not of men. No matter what the pressure, whether from other branches of the government or from sovereign states or interested groups or individuals, courts are not at liberty to set up standards outside the law.

“But this does not prevent progress. The rules of the common law, existing codes and statutes are constantly being changed by legislative enactments. And the Federal Constitution and the constitutions of the states may be amended whenever the people are so minded and take appropriate action to that end.

“Judges may not put aside or stretch the law in order to decide according to their individual conceptions of right and wrong or to give effect to what in their view would best meet social and economic needs. They are bound to take the law as it is.

Impartial Application

“They have to apply it impartially to the conditions, whether new or old, that are properly disclosed in controversies brought before them for decision. It is for others to determine whether new commercial, industrial or social conditions require amendment of the law. Courts may not substitute for fixed principles the changing popular conceptions of right or justice that from time to time may seem to merit approval. Interpretation cannot be made to serve in the place of legislation. When changes in the law are regularly accomplished, the courts will give them effect according to their true meaning and intent.”

Justice Butler said that, on the whole, Federal and States courts alike had been faithful and competent and that, with rare exceptions, judges have been loyal to the trust imposed upon them.

“Everyone is aware of widespread feelings,” he continued, “that justice is not being well administered. Many things have combined to create dissatisfaction. While there are undoubtedly ample grounds for anxiety on that score, in times of general agitation in respect of matters of great public concern there is danger of overstatement. I am not familiar with details, even those disclosed by recent surveys, and, of course, cannot say what the facts are. But I have the impression that in civil cases most of the delays and at least a substantial part of the miscarriages of justice are chargeable to litigants or their counsel rather than to causes that can be controlled by the judges.

Integrity of Judiciary

“It is probable that very few criminals who are appropriately prosecuted on evidence sufficient to convict escape because of failure of judges rightly to discharge their duties under the law. I doubt whether any considerable part of the existing evils may be attributed to the lack of capacity or integrity on the part of the judiciary.”

The justice pointed out that in civil cases the number of reported decisions has increased so rapidly that attorneys are unable to keep up with them. Judges, he said, are often compelled to rely on arguments of counsel because they lack the necessary time to search out and consider all of the decisions.

Clarifying Work

Justice Butler said a great deal is being done to clarify the law and pointed to the undertaking of the American Law Institute, which has for several years been engaged in restating the common law as it exists in this country.

“As to enforcement of criminal law,” he went on, “the situation is baffling. Serious crimes of violence are committed with terrifying frequency. Gangs of lawless men are regularly engaged in criminal occupations; they impudently defy the forces of government.

“The first step in the enforcement of law is the arrest of offenders. Local police forces cannot cope with conditions that have developed in recent years. They should be supplemented by state-wide organizations, and there should be close cooperation among the states and with the Federal Government. Frequent failures to apprehend perpetrators of great crimes shock the public, lessen the confidence in the strength of government, create contempt for the laws and encourage those engaged in unlawful undertakings to believe that they can maintain their callings by means of force, corruption and crimes of violence. The cause of law enforcement suffers most on account of lack of adequate police forces.

Sufficient Evidence

“In most cases where offenders are arrested there is evidence sufficient to convict them. And where proper prosecutions are had, verdicts of guilty are likely to follow. But sometimes offenders escape conviction because of the failure of officers to find and bring forward the evidence of their guilt. And there are some miscarriages chargeable to inexperience or lack of skill on the part of prosecuting attorneys. Judges are not to be blamed for what they are powerless to prevent.

“The acquittal of offenders plainly shown to be guilty is most unfortunate. Such an overthrow of justice inflicts serious injury upon the State. All right-minded persons want it to be impossible to cheat or buy out the law. I think that by appropriate effort the number of such miscarriages may be greatly reduced.

Public Aroused

“It is encouraging to know that the public, and especially the members of our profession, are aroused and determined to find out what the troubles really are and remove them. Careful investigations are being made under state authority. The Federal Government is active in its field. Bar associations — the American, state and local — are more effectively organized than ever before. By constant discussion they have aroused the profession to take action in the interest of better legal education and for the maintenance of right professional standards. They are doing much in practical ways to bring about desirable changes in procedure as well as in the substantive law.

“The considered judgment of practicing lawyers who are familiar with local conditions and experienced in the prosecution and defense of persons accused of crime is entitled to great weight in matters that pertain to criminal trials. While the judges generally prefer not to take part in the discussion of controversial subjects, they usually are willing to give to their brethren at the bar the benefit of their views in respect of measures proposed for the improvement of the administration of justice.

Give Great Weight

“Many legislators and administrative officers are lawyers. While rightly self-reliant, they are certain to give great weight to the concurrent opinion of experienced and disinterested members of the profession. The best guide is the wisdom that experience gives to the learned men who are blessed with good common sense.

“In this state the principal bar associations, prominent lawyers and public-spirited men of affairs have organized a statewide movement for the ascertainment of facts concerning the enforcement of law in respect of crimes of violence. Conclusions or recommendations based on adequate investigations have been reported. Good work is being done to bring about the adoption of measures to strengthen and improve police forces and public prosecutors, to untrammel trial judges that they may be free not only to instruct juries as to the law, but also to advise them as to the facts, and in other practical ways to relieve the administration of criminal laws from cumbersome and unreasonable restrictions that are imposed by existing statutes.

Invaluable Support

“The press and individuals who make and lead public opinion are giving invaluable support. The people are to be congratulated upon the progress that has been made.”

Justice Butler’s closing remarks concerned undoubtedly the program of the Missouri Association for Criminal Justice, which attempted unsuccessfully in the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth General Assemblies to revise the criminal code of the State. Only a few minor bills in the program were enacted into laws.

Cumulative Index 2001-2010

We have the following indexes:
Subject | Author | Cases Cited


Journal of the Missouri Bar Archives


Back issues of the Journal (from 1930 to present) are available to active Missouri Bar members via HeinOnline.