Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

The remarkable Charles Evans Hughes (1862-1948) is best known for his terms as Associate Justice (1910-1916) and later as Chief Justice (1930-1941) of the Supreme Court, for which many commentators characterize him as one of the Court’s greatest jurists. However, he also taught Japanese, Latin and calculus to finance his way through law school, became an eminent lawyer and professor of law and a recognized crusading investigator of the utilities and insurance industries, served as the reform Governor of New York State (1907-1910) (he resigned to serve on the Supreme Court), ran as the Republican nominee for president, leaving his seat on the Supreme Court only to lose a tight election against to Woodrow Wilson (with some commentators believing him to be “the greatest president that never was”), served as U.S. Secretary of State in the Harding administration (1921-1925) and, after Harding’s death in office, in the Coolidge administration, and served as a judge of the World Court (1928-1930).

Hughes portrait.

Hughes became a nationally known figure in the muckraking, trust-busting age as head of the New York “gas inquiry,” when his independence, diligence and capacity for sorting through the financial tangle of rate-making and price gouging won him a broad following. After his investigation of corruption in the insurance industry, his reputation as an independent-minded Republican facilitated his defeat of William Randolph Hearst in the 1906 New York gubernatorial election, as he became the only Republican to win statewide office that year. Although corporate interest underscored both his former clients and his campaign supporters, he showed independence in his two terms as governor, supporting the creation of a Public Service Commission with strong powers to regulate corporate activity.


After declining Taft’s offer of the vice-presidential nomination (1908), Taft appointed him to the Supreme Court; as Chief Justice, he led the fight against FDR’s attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court, wrote the seminal opinion ruling that prior restraints against the press are unconstitutional, aligned with Brandeis and Cardozo – two Jewish Justices – in (surprisingly and disappointedly, to many) ruling that FDR’s New Deal proposals were constitutional, and joined a powerful dissent decrying a “lynch law” trial during a time of antisemitic mob violence against a Jew accused of murdering a young southern woman (see fuller discussion of the Leo Frank case below). As Secretary of State, he pushed for U.S. participation in the League of Nations, advocated international reduction of arms, promoted the World Court, and supported various international efforts to fend off another world war.

Two Supreme Court Justices: Photo of Hughes with William Howard Taft who, as president, nominated him to serve on the High Court. Hughes would later succeed Taft as Chief Justice after Taft’s retirement.

Hughes’ Baptist minister father and deeply devout mother hoped that he would enter the ministry, and Bible and religious training infused his early years to the point that when at play, the young Hughes would take imaginary trips up and down the land of Eretz Yisrael, which he knew well from a beloved illustrated book on Biblical lands. Throughout his life, he manifested a deep belief in religious freedom and equality and, at a time when antisemitism was de rigueur in the United States, he was an outspoken supporter of Jewish rights. In the 1920s, driven by a rise in prejudice against Jews and Catholics and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, he founded the National Conference of Christians and Jews (1927), a human relations organization dedicated to combatting prejudice and bringing people of different races and cultures to address interfaith divisions, among other societal schisms. The NCCJ later created the Charles Evans Hughes Award for “courageous leadership in governmental service.”

Many citizens, particularly Democrats, condemned him as “profanely flawed” because he was so outspoken in his opposition to antisemitism, but Hughes’ philosemitism proved to be a great boon for him in elective politics. In 1906, he won his first term as New York governor by defeating William Randolph Hearst who, aware that the majority of New York’s 600,000 Jews were Yiddish readers, had launched a new Yiddish daily newspaper dedicated to railing against Hughes. Nonetheless, Hughes won the Jewish vote (Hearst shut down the paper immediately after losing the election), and he went on to earn 45 percent of the Jewish vote in his failed run for president against Woodrow Wilson in 1916, the highest percentage ever recorded for a Republican presidential candidate.

Photograph of Hughes campaigning for the presidency.

Hughes was among the first Americans to declare that the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a loathsome fraud that promoted the idea of a secret Jewish scheme for world domination, was a sham. An English translation of the Protocols did not arrive in the United States until 1917, when Boris Brasol, a Russian expat and monarchist, translated the Protocols into English and delivered a copy to the State Department, hoping to persuade the American government to withhold recognition of the new Soviet regime – and convinced Henry Ford to publish the Protocols in his fervently antisemitic International Jew series in the Dearborn Independent (1920-1922).

Harris Ayres Houghton, MD, an American Army Intelligence officer in Brooklyn and a passionate antisemite, obtained Brasol’s translation and, convinced of its authenticity, he ordered a subordinate to investigate all prominent Jews for signs of subversion. Hoping for broader government dissemination of the Protocols, he forwarded a copy to Hughes, then chief justice, but more importantly in this context, then serving as chair of a government committee investigating a scandal in American wartime aircraft manufacture. Houghton alleged that Jewish conspirators had sabotaged the American war effort in World War I and, in particular, that “Jewish International Bankers” had caused the manufacturing problems, but Hughes derided the very idea. He immediately brought the document to the attention of Louis Marshall, the president of the American Jewish Committee, and lost no time in proclaiming the inauthenticity of the Protocols.

There is no public record of Hughes taking a position on the right of Jews to settle in Eretz Yisrael, except for one notable instance when he wrote a letter to the British government as Secretary of State using the term “Jewish commonwealth.” Hughes’ letter was cited during the House Committee on Foreign Affairs discussions beginning in early 1944 regarding a resolution that “Resolved, that the United States shall use its good offices and take appropriate measures to the end that the doors of Palestine shall be opened for free entry of Jews into that country, and that there shall be full opportunity for colonization so that the Jewish people may ultimately reconstitute Palestine as a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth.”

U.S. stamp issued April 11, 1962, honoring Hughes.

Hughes, as Secretary of State, was one of the first American leaders to be advised about the Nazi threat to Jews in the nascent Third Reich when American Jewish leaders, although they did not yet believe the alarming reports they were receiving, brought the situation to his attention. In his manifestly disappointing response – perhaps understandable from a Cabinet officer serving in an isolationist administration – Hughes drew a black line between the rights and interests of American citizens, which he maintained would always be defended forcefully, and non-citizens, on whose behalf the American government had no right to intervene. Nonetheless, he assured Jewish leader Rabbi Stephen Wise that this did not mean that the American government was unmindful of the demands of humanity and that American diplomats would “express in an informal and appropriate manner the humanitarian sentiment of our people.”

As a Supreme Court justice, Hughes supported Jewish interests in three seminal cases. First, in A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (1935), two kosher poultry businesses in New York were convicted for false sales and price reports and for selling a diseased bird in violation of the National Industry Recovery Act of 1933 (NRA), which was passed as part of the New Deal, that authorized President Roosevelt to regulate industry, establish a national public works program, set codes of conduct and protect collective bargaining rights for unions, all in the name of stimulating economic recovery. The Jewish business owners challenged the constitutionality of the NRA and, in a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Hughes, the Court found that the law was too vague about the definition of “fair competition” and, in Hughes’ words, left too much to “the discretion of the President in approving or prescribing codes, and thus enacting laws for the government of trade and industry throughout the country” which was “an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power.”

The Hughes Court dramatically advanced the parameters of freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and Hughes was personally instrumental in incorporating both freedoms into the Fourteenth Amendment, thereby ensuring that First Amendment freedoms would be constitutionally protected from state interference. In Near v. Minnesota (1931), for example, the first substantial press case to reach the Supreme Court, Hughes created the First Amendment doctrine opposing “prior restraint” of speech.

In his revolting publication, the Saturday Press, Jay Near condemned government officials for failing to act to stop corruption of the alleged “bootlegging and racketeering” of “Jewish gangsters.” The Minnesota legal authorities blocked the publication of Near’s smear sheet, accusing him of violating a Public Nuisance Law (1925), which banned the publication of material that was “malicious, scandalous and defamatory.” However, in a 5-4 opinion written by Hughes, a watershed opinion in freedom of the press, the Court prohibited censorship and found that “prior restraint” of a publication to be “presumptively unconstitutional” (except for “exceptional cases”).

It is important to note that while the opinion ultimately permitted an antisemitic publisher to disseminate Jew-hatred, it also preserved the right of Jews to proclaim Am Yisrael Chai (“the Jewish people live”), which many on the left today characterize as “hate speech,” and has preserved many of the First Amendment rights that American Jews take for granted – and shouldn’t.

The case of greatest Jewish interest in which Hughes arguably most distinguished himself was the infamous Leo Frank case, where, along with Oliver Wendell Holmes, he was one of only two dissenters in a 7-2 Supreme Court decision that it could not reconsider the trial court’s determination that the anti-Frank mob – and a press that inflamed the public with base and salacious antisemitism – had deprived Frank of his fundamental constitutional right to due process.

Frank (1884-1915) was a Jewish American factory superintendent who was convicted in 1913 of the murder in Atlanta of a 13-year-old worker, Mary Phagan. His trial, conviction and appeals attracted national attention, and his kidnapping from prison and lynching two years later in response to the commutation of his death sentence became the focus of social, regional, political and racial concerns, particularly regarding antisemitism. The overwhelming consensus of experts today is that the Frank conviction was a travesty of justice and was attributable, in large part, to antisemitism. Many people do not know that, at the time of his arrest, Frank held prominent positions in the Jewish community, including serving as president of the Atlanta chapter of B’nai B’rith, the largest branch in the United States at the time.

The Frank case ended up before the Supreme Court after the Georgia Supreme Court on a 4-2 vote rejected Frank’s petition for a new trial, dismissing claims of procedural errors and irregularities. Frank then petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus – a challenge to a defendant’s detention or imprisonment that requires the government to “produce the body” of the defendant and to explain the reasons for detention – on the grounds that, among other things, mob domination had effectively denied him procedural due process and had rendered the proceedings null and void. Solicitor General Hugh Dorsey absurdly claimed that none of the very public and raucous anti-Frank demonstrations ever came to the attention of the jury and, in a 7-2 opinion, the court majority agreed, ruling that Frank’s allegations of disorder were largely groundless and did not affect the verdict, and that in any case, his bald reassertion of the same allegations of mob interference had already been considered, and rejected, by the Georgia Court of Appeals.

In a powerful dissent, Hughes joined Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in arguing that the judgment against Frank should be reversed. They noted that when Frank’s trial began on July 28, 1913, with the Atlanta courthouse packed and with spectators and surrounded by a crowd outside on August 23, the judge conferred in the presence of the jury with the chief of police of Atlanta (and with the colonel of the Fifth Georgia Regiment stationed in the city) about the threat to public safety in the event of an acquittal. On the same day, with the jury ready to deliver its verdict, the press presented a united request that the court discontinue proceedings that day because of the risk of riot, and the court agreed to adjourn until Monday morning.

In their dissent, Holmes and Hughes went on to describe how when the prosecutor entered the court that Monday morning, he was greeted with “applause, stamping of feet and clapping of hands.” The trial judge privately advised Frank’s lawyer that there would be “probable danger of violence” were Frank to be acquitted, and he advised Frank and his lawyer that it would be safer for both not to be present in court when the verdict was read. When the guilty verdict was read, and before more than one of the members of the jury could be polled, there was a huge roar of applause that prevented further polling until the pandemonium could be quelled, and the noise outside was such that it was difficult for the judge to hear the answers of the jurors, although he was only ten feet from them. With these specifications of fact, Frank’s lawyers argued that the trial was dominated by a hostile mob and was therefore nothing but an empty form.

Hughes and Holmes rejected the government’s argument – and the Court’s majority decision – that even where a state court may have been dominated by a mob, its rulings are unreviewable and that Frank had been deprived of due process:

[W]hatever disagreement there may be as to the scope of the phrase “due process of law,” there can be no doubt that it embraces the fundamental conception of a fair trial, with opportunity to be heard. Mob law does not become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrorized jury. We are not speaking of mere disorder, or mere irregularities in procedure, but of a case where the processes of justice are actually subverted… The fact that the state court still has its general jurisdiction and is otherwise a competent court does not make it impossible to find that a jury has been subjected to intimidation in a particular case.

Any judge who has sat with juries knows that, in spite of forms, they are extremely likely to be impregnated by the environing atmosphere. And when we find the judgment of the expert on the spot – of the judge whose business it was to preserve not only form, but substance – to have been that if one juryman yielded to the reasonable doubt that he himself later expressed in court as the result of most anxious deliberation, neither prisoner nor counsel would be safe from the rage of the crowd, we think the presumption overwhelming that the jury responded to the passions of the mob… it is our duty to declare lynch law as little valid when practiced by a regularly drawn jury as when administered by one elected by a mob intent on death.

After Frank lost his final appeal at the Supreme Court over the objections of Hughes and Holmes, Georgia Governor Georgia John Slaton reviewed the case and commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment in 1915. However, two months later, an enraged mob of armed men kidnapped Frank from his prison cell, drove him over 100 miles to Marietta (Mary Phagan’s hometown), and lynched him. The Frank case remains one of the great stains on the American judicial system.

Hughes’ correspondence to the Jewish Cantors’ Association.

Hughes had a lifelong love of music, and he and his wife were often seen attending operas and concerts. In this December 29, 1923, correspondence on his Secretary of State letterhead, Hughes writes:

I send my cordial greetings to the Jewish Cantors’ Association of America and I trust that they will have abundant success in their endeavor to raise funds for the superannuated [aged] members of this honored profession, which has so largely contributed to perpetuate the most worthy traditions of Jewish music and the ethical precepts of their faith…

In 1891, an effort was undertaken to organize an association of traditional cantors in North America, leading to the launch of the Jewish Ministers Cantors Association of America & Canada (JMCA), or the Chazzanim Farband, the oldest cantorial organization in the United States, in 1897. It describes itself as a professional international association of traditional Reverend Cantors serving the Jewish community for over a century whose goal is to help revive the art of the Cantor and bring beauty back to the Jewish worship service. During its celebrated history, it boasted some of the greatest chazzanim of the past century, including legendary cantors Yossele Rosenblatt and Moshe and David Koussevitsky.

The organization grew through the arrival on American shores of cantors who survived the pogroms of Eastern Europe of the 1890s, World War I refugees, and Holocaust remnants of the great European cantors who had lead services at the hundreds of synagogues destroyed by the Nazis. Their lives and the lives of their families depended upon the fellowship and support of the JMCA which, in many instances, was the only institution that could help them find cantorial employment. The organization, which grew along with an ever-expanding America, supplied traditional chazzanim to Jewish communities all over the United States and throughout Canada.

On December 29, 1947, the JCMA celebrated its 50th Anniversary Concert at the Metropolitan Opera House and, on December 5, 1960, it held its 60th Anniversary Concert and celebration at Madison Square Garden before 20,000 attendees. The organization was invited to a special private audience with Pope John Paul II at Vatican City on January 18, 2005, when thirteen cantors and other Jewish dignitaries traveled to Rome to thank the Pope for his contribution to religious reconciliation with the Jewish People and the State of Israel. The Rabbis in attendance recited a special prayer; the cantors sang a special Shehecheyahu to commemorate the event at the Vatican in Clementine Hall and they presented a concert at the Great Synagogue of Rome on January 17 for the Roman Jewish community.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].