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In 1884, Charles Evans Hughes qualified as a member of the New York bar at age 22. After seven years of practice in New York City, in precarious health, he took a respite and became a law professor at Cornell. Two years later, his health restored, he returned to his metropolitan practice. He remained there in relative obscurity until he was 43, in 1905, when he was appointed counsel to a legislative committee investigating local utilities. A far more renowned investigative assignment for the Armstrong Insurance Commission soon followed that catapulted Hughes to national fame. In 1906 he received, unsought, the Republican nomination for Governor of New York and defeated William Randolph Hearst in the general election. In 1910, President Taft appointed him an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and six years later he received-again unsought-the Republican Presidential nomination. He lost an extremely close election to the incumbent, Woodrow Wilson, and returned to New York to practice law. In 1921, President Harding appointed him Secretary of State. After four years in that position under Harding and his successor Calvin Coolidge, he returned to his New York law practice. In 1929, he became a judge of the Permanent Court of International Justice; even while at the Hague, he continued to participate in his New York law practice, returning to it full time after the Court's session. He was in his office in 1930 when President Hoover announced his nomination for Chief Justice of the United States. He served in that capacity until 1941, finally retiring- and remaining in Washington.

As this recital suggests, opportunities for public service came to Hughes unbidden, though not unwelcome, and almost by chance. At the center of his intellectual being, as at the center of his career, was not politics or diplomacy, but the law. He shared and embodied the Progressive faith that the law could be a tremendously potent force for good. Indeed, to a great extent, the law replaced the religion he had learned from his minister father. I believe that Hughes was basically a positivist-he recognized law as a human creation, not an inevitable product of nature-but at its finest, the law represented to him reason based on fundamental principles as applied to a given factual situation.


This article is reproduced with permission from the July 2017 issue of the American Journal of International Law © 2017 American Society of International Law. All rights reserved.