Author: John M. Harlan

Supreme Court Justice John M. Harlan was born in Boyle County, Kentucky, the son of a lawyer and Whig politician. He studied law at Transylvania University, completing his education in his father’s law office. Following in his father’s footsteps, he entered the political realm as a Whig supporter, but soon shifted his affiliation to the Know-Nothing Party and later to the Constitutional Unionists Party. A slaveholder and a member of the southern aristocracy, Harlan supported the Union but opposed abolition. In 1868, he once again shifted his allegiance to support the Republican Party. Harlan played an instrumental role as the head of the Kentucky delegation at the 1876 Republican National Convention, supporting Rutherford B. Hayes’s nomination as the party’s presidential candidate. After Hayes was elected, he nominated Harlan to the Supreme Court. Harlan was sworn in as the 44th Supreme Court Justice on December 10, 1877. During his nearly 34 years of service, he participated in more than 14,000 cases and wrote 1,161 opinions. Known as the “great dissenter,” Harlan was the only justice who opposed the “separate but equal” doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), a ruling which was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

From Halter v. Nebraska

John M. Harlan

This 1907 US Supreme Court case involves a Nebraska statute that prohibited desecration of the flag and banned its use for advertising purposes. Two Nebraska businessmen challenged the law after being convicted for using the flag to advertise their “Stars and Stripes” beer.