The History of Pepper Hamilton From 1890 - 1955
George Wharton Pepper was born in 1867. A devoted Philadelphian, he attended the University of Pennsylvania and then its Law School. His prizewinning essay in his graduation year, “The Borderland of Federal and State Decisions,” was cited by Justice Brandeis nearly 50 years later in the landmark Erie Railroad v. Tompkins opinion.
Mr. Pepper dominated the Philadelphia bar during the first half of the twentieth century. He was one of the best known constitutional lawyers of his time. Among his more notable engagements was the Federal League Baseball Case, where the United States Supreme Court held that the professional sport of baseball was not engaged in interstate commerce and was, therefore, not subject to the Sherman Act. Senator Pepper also argued Myers v. United States and United States v. Smith. In Myers, Senator Pepper, at the request of the United States Supreme Court, appeared on behalf of the United States Senate in a controversy involving the power of removal by the President of the United States. In the Smith case, at the request of the United States Attorney General, Senator Pepper represented a proposed presidential appointee in a controversy between the President of the United States and the Senate concerning the President’s appointment powers.
Perhaps Mr. Pepper’s best known case was the so-called Agricultural Adjustment Act case, United States v. Butler. There, he persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court that a major portion of the Roosevelt Administration’s “New Deal” economic recovery program could not pass constitutional muster. In recognition of the force of his logic, Mr. Pepper’s oral argument in the Butler case was one of the few ever transcribed in full, rather than summarized, in official case reports of the United States Supreme Court.
Mr. Pepper taught law at the University of Pennsylvania for 21 years. He was president of the American Law Institute, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania and chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. He was the major force behind the financing and construction of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Pepper was appointed to the United States Senate in 1922 to fill the unexpired term of Senator Boies Penrose. He was later elected to the remaining four years of the Penrose term and served with such Senate legends as Lodge, Underwood, Borah, Norris and LaFollette. Pennsylvania Republican Party bosses were never comfortable with Senator Pepper and eventually withdrew their support, ending his political career in 1926.
In a 1954 article in the University of Florida Law Review, a fellow Philadelphia lawyer recalled: “When I was in law school I had the privilege of having courses under the Nestor of the Philadelphia Bar, that great lawyer George Wharton Pepper. At the end of a lecture one day I asked him what one quality he considered most necessary to a successful lawyer. Without an instant’s hesitation he answered, ‘Imagination.’”
In 1954, the Pepper firm and another Philadelphia law firm — Evans, Bayard & Frick — merged as Pepper, Bodine, Frick, Scheetz & Hamilton. It started with 35 lawyers and moved to the headquarters building of The Fidelity Bank, one of the firm’s major clients.
The founder of the Evans firm, John G. Johnson, was born in 1841, the son of a blacksmith. After graduating from high school, Mr. Johnson became what we would call today a document clerk in a law office. At age 21, without further formal education, he was admitted to the bar; at age 28, he was selected to be general counsel for the Pennsylvania Company. He played a leading part in the reorganization of Pennsylvania’s railroads and in the consolidation of the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh transit utilities.
His biographer relates that Mr. Johnson handled 10,000 court cases during his career, including 2,000 appeals in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and 168 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mr. Johnson argued the so-called Sugar Monopoly Case, in which he persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court that a manufacturing monopoly could not be challenged under the federal antitrust laws without a separate showing of engagement in interstate commerce. He argued the famed Northern Securities Case in an effort to forestall the federal government’s attack on the Northern Pacific Railway and Great Northern Railway combine. He defended the Standard Oil Company against the federal government’s attempt to break it up, and he defended the United States Steel Company in a similar effort by the federal government.
Mr. Johnson organized his firm as a sole proprietorship with a number of salaried associates. He accepted almost every case that came to him, no matter how small, and he dealt with people personally, refusing to discuss legal matters on the telephone. It was not unusual to see J.P. Morgan in Mr. Johnson’s waiting room, sitting beside a local merchant with a $100 claim. Mr. Johnson once was offered the position of Attorney General of the United States and twice was offered a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States; he declined both.
When John G. Johnson died in 1917, Ralph Evans took command of the successor firm. Mr. Evans was an extraordinary trial lawyer, ranking with later Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts and a short list of others as the leading practitioners in Philadelphia. During the l930s, though the firm had only 10 lawyers, its clients included The Bell Telephone Company of Pennsylvania, Gimbel Brothers, Lukens Steel Company, N.W. Ayer Advertising Agency, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Curtis Publishing Company, publisher of the nation’s most widely read weekly magazine, The Saturday Evening Post. The Evans firm was also trial counsel for The Travelers Insurance Company.
Mr. Evans died at age 53 in 1936; he was succeeded by Francis H. Scheetz, the dominant partner of the Evans firm at the time of the 1954 merger with the Pepper firm. Mr. Scheetz was a corporate counselor of agile mind and demanding performance standards. He was an avid alumnus of Cornell, serving on that University’s Board of Trustees. He spent his summer vacations at Cornell, taking courses on scientific subjects unrelated to his corporate practice. He and his charming wife terrified young associates by inviting them to formal Sunday lunches, and then unnerved them further by having lengthy pre-lunch cocktail hours with ice-cold martinis served from silver pitchers. Old-timers also tell a story of Mr. Scheetz, determined to continue working when a power outage darkened the firm’s office, forcing an associate to light match after match so that he could continue to review documents.
The History of Pepper Hamilton From 1955-Present