U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s most widely quoted opinion involved hard-core pornography, about which he famously or infamously wrote: “I know it when I see it.”
Jacobellis v. Ohio came to the court in 1964, five years after Stewart stood on a shaded knoll in Ferncliff Cemetery not far from McCreight Avenue for his father’s burial.
James Garfield Stewart was serving in the Ohio Supreme Court when he was stricken by a fatal heart attack at a speaking engagement in Louisville in early April 1959.
Like Potter Stewart, James G. had started his legal career in Springfield, following in the steps of his father, James E. Stewart, who had served in the Union Army.
The Civil War veteran’s Republican principles were so strong that when his son was born in mid-November 1880, he christened him James Garfield Stewart after the Ohio Republican and Civil War general who had been elected president of the United States earlier that month.
James G. was just 8 when his father passed away. He finished his education in Springfield and graduated from Kenyon College in 1902. While there, he met Harriet Potter, who attended the Harcourt Place School for Girls on the Kenyon Campus, and whose last name she would pass on to a son.
By they time Harriet married him in 1911, James G. Stewart had completed law school at the University of Cincinnati, practiced for three years in Springfield’s Bushnell Building and relocated to Cincinnati.
Family history made son Potter a third generation of Republican attorneys, something that clearly appealed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he appointed Potter Stewart to the high court.
In addition to son Potter, before their divorce James G. and Harriet had a son, Zeph, who went on to teach the classics at Harvard University, and a daughter, referred to in the newspapers at the time of her father’s death as Mrs. John Colville of Cincinnati.
His obituary said that on his move to Cincinnati, James G. practiced law with Albert H. Morrill, “who later became president of the Kroger Grocery and Baking Co.”
The Kroger connection likely boosted Stewart’s career in Cincinnati politics. First elected to city council in 1933, he served for more than a decade and was in a second term as mayor when he was appointed to the Ohio Supreme Court in 1947. He ran unopposed in 1948 and was serving his second term in 1958, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower chose the third Republican attorney in the Stewart family to fill an opening on the high court.
Although Potter Stewart’s pedigree would include preparatory school before an Ivy league education, James G.’s obituary tells the story of a joyful old school politician who made speeches in 48 states and continued to love talking and pressing the flesh to the end.
“Even after he went to the State Supreme Court, the elder Stewart kept an apartment (in Cincinnati) and returned home on weekends to walk hatless down Vine Street, nodding and speaking to friends,” said a newspaper obituary.
He also was entertainingly unpredictable.
“Jim Stewart once flew to London to try to talk the United Nations into setting up its permanent headquarters in Cincinnati because he thought it would be a good place to get a world government started,” one obituary said. “He blamed the UN’s polite refusal on ‘European claustrophobia.’”
“As mayor, he sometimes dismissed routine,” the story added. “Once, when called to proclaim religious education week, he decided to junk the usual ‘whereas’ of proclamations and instead issued a two-line poem.”
James Stewart also maintained a connection with Springfield, addressing both the graduating class at Tecumseh High School and the Clark County firefighters during the last year of his life.
As evidence that he “had mastered all the elementary political techniques and had a humor about himself that is not common among politicians,” the Associated Press told a story about how James Stewart “arrived at a Hebrew gathering after successive appearances at a Roman Catholic Holy Name Society breakfast, a Methodist Bible class meeting and a Shriner’s convention.
“He said, ‘It is well known that I am a Catholic, a Lutheran, an Episcopalian, a Methodist, a Baptist and a Mormon. And now it is with great pride and simple devotion that I am gratified to say that I am a member of this Hebrew congregation today.”
“Perhaps the best tribute,” added Springfield Daily News Editor Bert A. Teeters, “lies in the fact that even those who vigorously opposed him … respected his ability, his character and his integrity.”
“Behind his outward facade,” a report added, “was a brilliant intellect,” which one Democratic colleague on the Ohio Supreme Court said could “cut through to the meat of a legal issue real quick.”
The quote seems particularly appropriate given the role meat played in the case the Ohio Supreme Court’s Website offers as an example of James Stewart’s approach to the law.
In Gedra vs. Dallmer Co., which came before the Ohio Supreme Court in 1950, Anna Gedra sued the owners of Youngstown’s Palace Theater after being bitten by a rat. The rat attack came after she’d placed a boiled ham and Italian sausage sandwich on the seat next to her, but she claimed the theater had been negligent by failing to control its rat population.
In his majority opinion, Stewart quoted a section of the case’s trial transcript that may be even more striking than his son’s famous pronouncement about pornography — and funny to most everyone who didn’t live in downtown Youngstown.
Lawyer: “And so there is no way you could make a place absolutely rat free in downtown Youngstown, is there?”
Witness: “No, there is not.”
From that evidence, Stewart reasoned “it was just as probable the rat which bit or scratched her came into the defendant’s theater from adjoining premises without negligence upon the part of the defendant.”
Added his opinion: “The Court of Common Pleas should have instructed a verdict in favor of defendant or should have granted a defendant’s motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict.”
As sure as his son knew pornography when he saw it, Judge James G. Stewart knew a legal rat when he smelled one.