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CAHSS professor uses grant to research biography

Writing book on 20th century Texas federal judge

Department of History and Political Science Professor Charles Zelden, Ph.D., has trekked more than 7,000 miles across the country to track down materials for an upcoming biography.

Charles Zelden

Zelden is conducting research for a book tentatively titled The Judge Intuitive: Joseph C. Hutcheson, Jr., Southern Federal Judge. The book’s subject figure served as a federal judge in Texas from 1918 to 1968. Zelden’s research is funded by the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation’s $16,700 Senior Research Grant. The nonprofit foundation supports the publication of books on American legal history.

Joseph Hutcheson

“To write a biography of someone, you not only need their papers, but the people they’re writing to, because very often you only get half the conversation,” Zelden said. “It’s an expensive process. The grant offered me a chance to do this in a way I could afford.”

Zelden first came across Hutcheson while working on his dissertation and first book, which documented the history of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Because it was a single judge district at Hutcheson’s appointment in 1918, Zelden’s book naturally focused on Hutcheson.

“He did so much with the law,” he said. “In my proposal I called him the judge that no one knew but everyone needed to, and I think so even more now after doing the research.”

That fascination led to a 1998 article on Hutcheson in the South Texas Law Review and eventually to the book project. Zelden was looking for a new project when he received an email from Hutcheson’s granddaughter, who came across Zelden’s article while looking for someone to write a biography on her grandfather. Zelden applied for the grant and used his sabbatical to travel across the country and gather records. His travels took him to locations like Emory University, Harvard Law School, Columbia University, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives in Texas.

Hutcheson wore many hats before his long career as a federal judge. Originally a civil lawyer in private practice, he worked as legal adviser to the City of Houston and later served as its mayor from 1917-18. He also helped the YMCA found the South Texas Law School in Houston and served as its dean. As the sole judge in a district that included a 600-mile coastline, Hutcheson dealt with issues relating to World War I and Prohibition. In many cases, Hutcheson released defendants for time served, set low bail or took other measures due to the lack of a federal probation law.

“He basically created an ad hoc probation system,” Zelden said.

However, Hutcheson worked to create a formal probation system through the Prison Conference and National Probation Association, which eventually led to Congress passing a federal probation law in 1925. In 1930, he was appointed by President Hoover to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Hutcheson was later considered for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, and although he was a Democrat, his opposition to President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies ended his chances. Zelden said Hutcheson was opposed to administrative agencies like the National Labor Relations Board making judicial decisions that took power away from the judiciary.

“He would’ve driven FDR crazy as a Supreme Court justice,” Zelden said.

To date, Zelden has published seven books, which include topics like voting rights, the Bush v Gore Supreme Court case that decided the 2000 presidential election, and a biography of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. In an example of how history intersects, Zelden noted that as a lawyer, Marshall argued several cases before Hutcheson.

Zelden estimates that it could take two to four years to write the book, but in the meantime he will use his research on Hutcheson to produce articles and present at conferences. Zelden teaches four undergraduate courses: American Government, Vietnam, Individual Rights and the Law, and Judicial Politics and Process.

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