John Marshall Harlan: King of the Links


The latest (v. 35 no. 2) issue of the Journal of Supreme Court History has another article on Justice Harlan, albeit one in a very light vein. “The Judicial and Ancient Game” by Green Bag editor Ross E. Davies is a look at how the game of golf became part of the institution of the Supreme Court, due primarily to Harlan. Harlan was not the first Supreme Court justice to play golf (that honor would appear to fall on James Wilson back in the 1700’s) but he was the first to play it regularly. In this age of news reports on President Bush and Obama’s golf games, it’s hard to believe that the idea of  public figures playing golf, or any other outdoor sport, was frowned upon. But all that started to change when Harlan introduced the game to his colleagues, McKenna and Day. By 1909, 5 of the 9 justices played, thus establishing golf as the game of choice for justices through to this day (although Brandeis was a notable abstainer.) This is not an article that sheds any light on constitutional law, to be sure, but it’s a very enjoyable one for all that. It’s all the more valuable for its inclusion of an essay written by Harlan’s son Richard about his love for the game. The anecdote about how Harlan had to be goaded and tricked into playing his first game and how he was instantly addicted is genuinely amusing. The portrait of Harlan that paints him as a slightly vain and furiously competitive man could only have been written by a son.

I still cannot find the Journal of Supreme Court History online, so if you want to read the article, you’re going to have to go to a library to find it. However, for those who can’t to a law library, here is a couple pictures of Harlan on the golf course from the July 21, 1907 Boston Sunday Herald to tide you over (courtesy of the Harlan Papers at the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law.)

Two pictures of Justice Harlan golfing.

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