Biography for Homer S. Cummings
Homer Stillé Cummings was the first attorney general under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was long active in national and local Democratic Party politics. As attorney general, he was prominent in Roosevelt's attempt to pack the U.S. Supreme Court and the legal defense of many of the New Deal's innovations. He reformed the procedures of the Justice Department and was an astute, unflappable, and loyal political manager. Cummings was born in Chicago, Illinois on April 30, 1870, the son of an inventor and manufacturer of cement. He graduated from the Heathcote School in Buffalo, New York and received a bachelor's degree from the Sheffield School of Yale University in 1891 and a law degree from Yale Law School in 1893. After admission to the bar, he practiced law in Stamford, Connecticut in partnership with Samuel Fessenden and Galen A. Carter. In 1909, he joined with Charles D. Lockwood to form Cummings and Lockwood, remaining a partner in this firm until 1933 when he joined the Roosevelt administration. In 1896 as a silver Democrat, Cummings supported William Jennings Bryan for president and ran for attorney general of Connecticut. Cummings spoke out for lower tariffs, the income tax, and antimonopoly measures, believing the Democratic Party was an instrument for social justice. He was elected mayor of Stamford in 1900 and was reelected in 1904 and 1906. As mayor, he instituted progressive municipal programs: constructing and improving streets and sewers, reorganizing the police and fire departments, and securing a shorefront park (subsequently named after him). He waged war against a political machine, predatory public utilities, and padded contracts. Nominated for congressman-at-large in 1902 and for U.S. senator in 1910 and 1916, he lost narrowly each time. From 1914 to 1924, he served as state's attorney for Fairfield County. During those years, Cummings began building a power base within the national Democratic Party, eventually serving as its national vice chair between 1913 and 1919 and chair from 1919 to 1920. Cummings greatly admired Woodrow Wilson, and at the 1920 convention, he delivered a passionate keynote address in praise of the stricken president. At the 1924 convention, he backed Woodrow Wilson's son-in-law, William Gibbs McAdoo, against Alfred E. Smith. He failed in his efforts to bring the two sides together on the issues of the Ku Klux Klan and Prohibition. Neither man received the nomination, which went to John W. Davis. As attorney general of Fairfield County, Cummings is particularly remembered for his 1924 role as county prosecutor in the case of State v. Harold Israel. Israel, a drifter, was charged with the murder of a priest in Bridgeport. In spite of the evidence against Israel and his confession to the crime, Cummings questioned his guilt. In the end, the case was dismissed at Cummings' request during a gripping courtroom scene. The National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (the Wickersham Commission) in 1931 later commended Cummings for his role in securing the release of the innocent vagrant. (The events were immortalized in the 1947 film Boomerang.) From 1924 to 1932, Cummings concentrated on his private law practice. In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, he worked hard for the nomination of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president. He was instrumental in planning strategy, served as floor manager of the convention, and gave a resounding seconding speech. After the election, he turned down the post of governor general of the Philippines, but with the unexpected death of Thomas Walsh, he agreed to serve temporarily as attorney general on March 4, 1933. He accepted the post permanently a few weeks later. Cummings transformed the Department of Justice. According to historian Carl Brent Swisher, Cummings "took the view that his office called for leadership rather than passive administration under old statutes and ready-made policies . . . he conceived a program to refurbish the rusty machinery of national justice." He established uniform rules of practice and procedure in federal courts. To fight the crime waves of the Prohibition era, he secured the passage of laws that brought into effect the "Lindbergh law" on kidnapping, made bank robbery a federal crime, cracked down on the interstate transportation of stolen goods, and strengthened federal regulations on firearms. He gave the Federal Bureau of Investigation more power, sponsored a national crime conference, established Alcatraz as a model prison for hardened offenders, and reorganized the internal administration of the Justice Department Cummings' protection of controversial New Deal legislation and programs was more problematic. In March 1933, he advised Roosevelt that the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 allowed the president to close banks and regulate gold hoarding and export. The new attorney general personally argued the right of the government to ban gold payments before the Supreme Court and won the Gold Clause cases. He also successfully defended such New Deal programs as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Tennessee Valley Authority. His department's defense of other administration measures was famously unsuccessful. During 1935 and 1936, the Supreme Court, usually by five-to-four votes, overthrew eight important acts of the New Deal, including the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Guffey-Snyder Act, and the Agricultural Adjustment Act. After the great election triumph of 1936, Cummings and Roosevelt were determined to overcome the obstructions of the conservative and Republican Supreme Court majority. The large number of lawsuits and injunctions against the government outraged Cummings, who was eager to expand the powers of the federal judiciary. Roosevelt instructed him to draft legislation for court reform without altering the Constitution. Following an earlier idea of Justice James McReynolds, they proposed to add a judge for every judge who refused to retire at full pay at age 70. Such a measure could give the president the opportunity to appoint 50 new judges, including six to the Supreme Court. Roosevelt put forward the proposal, prepared secretly by Cummings with little legal advice, on February 5, 1937. Uproar confronted this Court-packing plan, and after 168 days, the Senate killed the bill by returning it to committee. Its failure emboldened opponents of the New Deal, and opposition to its proposals and programs grew. Cummings stepped down as attorney general on January 2, 1939 and returned to private law practice in Washington. He also retained his interest in the Connecticut Democratic Party, along with a residence in Greenwich, and served on the Greenwich Town Committee until 1951. He and his first wife Helen W. Smith, whom he had married in 1897, had one son. They divorced in 1907. A second marriage to Marguerite T. Owings lasted from 1909 to 1928. In 1929, Cummings married Mary Cecilia Waterbury, who died in 1939. In her memory, Cummings published The Tired Sea in 1939, an account of their travels. In 1942, he married Julia Alter, who died in 1955. Cummings died on September 10, 1956 in Washington, D.C. His large collection of papers is in the Alderman Library of the University of Virginia.