William Wiecek's early law career wasn't what one would expect of a well-known scholar in legal history. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1962, he practiced in a small New Hampshire firm for two years before realizing the profession wasn't for him. "I didn't like law school," he says. "I thought I'd enjoy practice a lot more, but I was even more unhappy."
Professor William Wiecek, the Chester A. Congdon Professor of Public Law and Legislation, combines his love of history and law by working on a volume about the history of the United States Supreme Court.
He returned to academia and his first lovehistoryearning a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1968. He then taught American history at the University of Missouri in Columbia. "I was happy at that for a while," Wiecek says, "but slowly my legal background reasserted itself, and I began to regret that I had abandoned law entirely."
He combined the two interests and began teaching legal and constitutional history at the University of Missouri-Columbia Law School. In 1985, he joined the SU College of Law, where he is the Chester A. Congdon Professor of Public Law and Legislation. Wiecek, who was named University Scholar/Teacher of the Year in 1997, holds a joint appointment with the law school and the history department in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
For most of his career Wiecek specialized in American legal history up to the time of the Civil War. Then came the opportunity to work on a volume of the Holmes Devise History of the Supreme Court of the United States,covering the period from 1941 through 1953, under chief justices Harlan Stone and Frederick Vinson. "It's a wonderful challenge," Wiecek says, "because these are the courts of World War II and the early Cold War. Some of the century's most important jurists were discussing ideas at the heart of 20th-century American constitutional experience." The Stone and Vinson courts created the basic foundations for the religion clauses of the First Amendment, Wiecek says, and were pivotal in free speech cases related to the Cold War. They also began the process of mandatory desegregation, laying groundwork for the 1954 landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
The multivolume Holmes Deviseproject honors Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose general bequest to the United States funds it. Justice Felix Frankfurter began the project in the 1940s, envisioning a definitive history of the nation's highest court. Frankfurter, who served on the court from 1939 to 1962, is the central figure in Wiecek's volume. "His influence was enormous, and not all for the good," Wiecek says. "He's nevertheless a giant of law in the 20th century, and I'm trying to do justice to his memory."
Much of the story is told in terms of Frankfurter's conflict with fellow justice Hugo Black, who served from 1937 to 1971. "They profoundly disagreed with each other, and expressed that disagreement in dissenting and concurring opinions that challenged each other's ideas," Wiecek says. "It adds a dimension of dynamism and tension to the story. One thing that makes writing this volume so much fun is that Black and Frankfurter, besides being intellectual opponents, were radically different from each other." Frankfurter, who was born in Vienna and grew up in New York City, represented the judicial elite. A product of Harvard Law School, he was a professor there from 1913 to 1939. He also was one of Franklin D. Roosevelt's most trusted advisors. Black, who came from rural Alabama, had two years of legal education at the University of Alabama Law School, which at the time boasted two faculty members. "Black's most engaging trait was that he was self-educated," Wiecek says. "He recognized the deficiency in his own education, and read all the nonfiction classics of the Western canon."
Wiecek has worked on the book for five years, and estimates it will be another three before it is completed. "For practically the first 30 years of the project, the Holmes Devisewas written in the shadow of Felix Frankfurter," he says. "It was his conception of what the history of the U.S. Supreme Court should be, which means it was history as seen by lawyers. All of us working on the current volumes are lawyers, but we also are historians, oriented toward a more historical approach."
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