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History and Traditions
William R. Day
The Honorable William R. Day
On Court: 1903-1922
William Rufus Day (17 Apr. 1849-9 July 1923), associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was born in Ravenna, Ohio, the son of Luther Day and Emily Spalding. Both his father and his maternal grandfather were lawyers and judges on the Ohio Supreme Court. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1870 and spent the following year in its Department of Law. After settling in Canton, Ohio, in 1872, he began his law practice and married Mary Elizabeth Schaefer in August 1875. He practiced criminal and corporate law in the growing industrial town for twenty-five years while participating in Republican politics and becoming a close friend of William McKinley. Day was a legal and political adviser to McKinley as the latter won elections to the U.S. Congress, the governorship of Ohio, and the presidency.
Day, reluctant to accept political offices, did accede to McKinley's wishes and became first assistant secretary of state on 23 April 1897. As a part of several political moves, McKinley appointed John Sherman (1823-1900) secretary of state to open an Ohio seat in the U.S. Senate, but because of his increasing loss of memory, irascibility, and differences with administration policies, Sherman was ineffective in that position. Thus, with no diplomatic experience, Day was the de facto secretary and the secretary of state for twenty months during the Spanish-American War. The president and others went to Day for advice and direction at the State Department as the United States moved closer to war with Spain. The French ambassador to the United States, Jules Cambon, met frequently with McKinley and Day in an attempt to mediate between Spain and the United States on the issues related to Cuban independence. The various Spanish concessions were not acceptable to the Americans, however, and McKinley and Day agreed to the proposal to send the Maine to Havana. After war was declared, Day argued that the Spanish colonies other than Cuba should be returned to Spain, but he accepted McKinley's harsher terms for peace. His final diplomatic effort was to lead the U.S. peace commission in Paris and sign the Peace Protocol and Treaty of Paris.
Soon after Day's return from Europe, and despite his hope to return to private life, in February 1899 McKinley appointed Day to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Both future chief justice William Howard Taft and associate justice Horace H. Lurton were then already sitting on the sixth circuit court of appeals. The assassination of President McKinley in the summer of 1901 was a shock and tragedy for Day.
In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) twice offered the seat on the U.S. Supreme Court vacated by George Shiras, Jr., to William Howard Taft, but the then governor of the Philippines felt he could not leave his position there. Roosevelt then nominated Day in January 1903 to fill the vacancy. Day sat on the Supreme Court for almost twenty years during an era when the Court made numerous decisions that increased the involvement and police powers of both the federal and state governments in the economy.
Day wrote 439 opinions during his tenure on the Court, and only eighteen were dissents. Characterized as rigid and formalistic, and best known for his Hammer v. Dagenhart (1917) ruling, Day did advance state regulatory powers and the enforcement of antitrust laws, but the latter was the only federal economic police power that Day consistently supported. He argued that the Tenth Amendment did limit federal intervention and used that amendment to give assent to state regulations while denying regulatory power in most cases to the national government.
One of the first Roosevelt antitrust prosecutions, Northern Securities Co. v. U.S., was decided by the Supreme Court in 1904 on a five-to-four vote with Day concurring with the majority. Day distrusted very large corporations and voted with antitrust majorities throughout his time on the Court. He sided with the government in the Standard Oil, American Tobacco, and Union Pacific cases in 1911-1912 and again in the Southern Pacific case in 1922. Day believed that Congress could regulate commerce but that constitutional power did not extend to the supervision of production. Day accepted the logic of the U.S. v. E. C. Knight decision of 1895 that developed the distinction between commerce and production in the enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Chief Justice Melville Fuller in Knight wrote that regulation of interstate commerce did not include regulation of the manufacture or production of goods. Day used the same logic in his opinion in Hammer v. Dagenhart. That case grew out of the Federal Child Labor Act of 1916, which prohibited interstate transportation of products manufactured in factories that employed children under the age of fourteen, or children between fourteen and sixteen working more than eight hours a day or six days a week. Day was consistent in his belief that the commerce clause could not include regulation of production, even though the products would be transported over state borders. The decision frustrated the efforts of President Woodrow Wilson and the Progressives to control child labor, and it drew a harsh dissenting opinion from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935).
Day was more comfortable with state regulation of social ills. His rulings in cases of state government intervention affirmed his belief that states could regulate economic power and social problems within individual state boundaries. In Lochner v. New York, Day voted with the minority in 1905 to limit work in bakeries to ten hours a day. Day wrote the dissent in Coppage v. Kansas in 1915, in which he upheld the constitutionality of the state law to outlaw yellow-dog contracts. Later, in 1921, he asserted the right of a state to regulate drug use in Minnesota ex rel. Whipple v. Martinson. For Day there was a constitutional limit on federal police powers that did not exist for state governments.
Day retired from the Supreme Court in October 1922 and died on Mackinac Island, Michigan.
--From the American National Biography