January 12, 2019


On this day in history, 90-year-old Oliver Wendell Holmes retired from the Supreme Court after nearly 30 years of service. It was time, even a bit past time.  He’d been falling asleep during oral arguments and getting confused. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes had the unenviable task of having to tell him that.

Holmes biographer G. Edward White told the story this way:

Given Holmes’s extraordinary longevity and great fame, in addition to his remarkable intellectual powers, the discussion of retirement with him was a particularly delicate matter. After consulting with Louis Brandeis, however, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes decided to bring up the issue with Holmes. He made an appointment to meet with him on Sunday morning, January 12, 1932. In a brief conversation, Hughes suggested to Holmes that work was becoming too physically demanding for him and told him that his colleagues were concerned about his health. Holmes understood that Hughes was proposing that he retire, and wrote his resignation letter on the spot. In it he said that “the condition of my health makes it a duty to break off connections that I cannot leave without deep regret.” According to Chapman Rose [Holmes’ last law clerk], Hughes left the house “with tears streaming down his face.” Holmes, however, was “then and thereafter totally stoic” about his resignation, according to Rose, showing “no expression of emotion one way or another.” “The time has come,” he wrote in his resignation letter, “and I bow to the inevitable.”

Holmes lived another few years. He remains the oldest person to have served on the Supreme Court. He died on March 6, 1935, just a few days short of his 94th birthday. In his will, he left his residuary estate to the United States government, including his blood-stained Civil War uniform, torn by shot.

Not every Justice of the Supreme Court has been as stoic or as cooperative as Holmes was about being asked to retire. Early in his Supreme Court career, Justice Stephen Field was among those called upon by his colleagues to persuade Justice Robert Grier to retire. Grier, who had suffered several strokes, complied. Decades later, it was Field who had become intermittently senile. The first Justice John Marshall Harlan was given the task of persuading him to resign. Harlan began by reminding Field about his earlier mission to Grier. Field snapped back, “Yes and a dirtier day’s work I never did in my life!”  Field refused to budge.

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