Published: June 1, 2017 By

wiley rutledge

Salt of the Earth 

Byron White (Econ’38) secured a place in the annals of American law when he joined the U.S. Supreme Court in 1962. His one-time clerk Neil Gorsuch, a former visiting Colorado Law professor and the court’s newest justice, won his place in April.

By then, Wiley B. Rutledge (Law’22) lay deep in the history books: The first CU Boulder graduate to serve on the nation’s highest court joined in 1943.

Often overlooked due to his short tenure — he died six years later — Rutledge nonetheless established himself as a model of collegiality whose amiable, humble, tough-but-fair ways helped stabilize a group of quarrelsome peers.

“Wiley Rutledge had this real skill of making people feel valued and that they were heard,” said Craig Green, a Temple University law professor who has written about Rutledge.

A committed advocate for child labor laws, Rutledge used his brief Supreme Court tenure to bolster freedom of speech and religion, the separation of church and state and limits on executive power.

Born in Kentucky in 1894, Rutledge studied in Tennessee and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He began law school at Indiana University while teaching high school, but left to work full time and save money.

He and his wife, Annabel, resettled in Albuquerque, taught and kept saving. In 1920 Rutledge resumed law school at CU. Again he taught, at the now vanished Boulder State Preparatory School.

Rutledge earned his degree, joined a local firm and then CU’s law faculty.

In 1939, after serving as law dean at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Iowa, he became a judge, named to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Four years later, he was on the Supreme Court.

A tireless worker with high blood pressure, a smoking habit and a taste, Green said, for “meat and potatoes,” Rutledge died in 1949 after a stroke. He was 55.

A half-century later, a major biography appeared. Author John Ferren called it Salt of the Earth, Conscience of the Court. The title says it all.    

Photo courtesy Rutledge family