The Volokh Conspiracy

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Fun Facts About Judge David C. Westenhaver of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio (1865-1928)

The Wilson appointee presided over the sedition trial of Eugene Debs and declared unconstitutional the Village of Euclid's zoning code


Most District Court judges can spend their entire careers without the Supreme Court reviewing one of their decisions. Very few have two of their decisions reviewed by the Supreme Court. And outside of D.D.C., a very, very small number of federal judges preside over two cases that give rise to two landmark decisions. Judge David C. Westenhaver of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio (1865-1928) fits in this august group.

President Wilson nominated Westenhaver to the District Court in 1917. That seat opened up when Wilson nominated Judge John H. Clarke to the Supreme Court in 1916. (Wilson had appointed Clarke to the District Court only two years earlier.).

In 1918, Judge Westenhaver presided over the sedition trial of Eugene Debs. The prominent socialist had given an anti-war speech in nearby Canton, Ohio. Debs was convicted, and Westenhaver sentenced him to ten years in prison. On appeal the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction 9-0.

Seven years later, in 1926, Judge Westenhaver presided over Ambler Realty Co. v. Village of Euclid, Ohio. He declared the Village's zoning law unconstitutional. (You would think that a nominee of such a Progressive president would rule uphold this attempt at central planning.) Judge Westenhaver quipped in his opinion, "This case is obviously destined to go higher." He was right. On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the District Court's decision by a 6-3 vote. Justice Sutherland wrote the majority opinion. He left his fellow three horseman in the dust.

In the span of seven years, a single District Court judge in Ohio was randomly assigned two cases that would become landmark decisions. One was affirmed unanimously. The other was reversed by a 6-3 vote.

Judge Westenhaver died two years later in 1928.