More and more people (especially millennials) are learning what it’s like to live and work in Kansas City. From the reasonable cost of living to energetic art and culture, people are discovering Kansas City as an affordable place to live, work and raise families. While many have no connection, they’re learning quickly about our great city, the state, and its famous people.
One of those famous to Kansas City is Supreme Court Associate Justice Charles Evans Whittaker, who served from March 22, 1957, until he retired on March 31, 1962. Whittaker was born on a farm in 1921 in Troy, Kansas. While he worked long hours on the family farm, he also had a strong interest in becoming a lawyer after reading about criminal trials in the newspaper. His mother died when he was 16, and he dropped out of school in the ninth grade.
In 1920, he applied to the Kansas City School of Law’s part-time evening program. He was admitted with the stipulation that he would complete high school. He finished high school as well as law school while working to support himself at Watson, Ess, Marshall & Enggas as an office assistant, where he would later work as a corporate attorney. Whittaker was admitted to the state bar as a high school senior, and graduated in 1924. He was made a junior partner in 1929, and a full partner in 1940.
Whittaker developed his reputation as a trial lawyer for corporate clients. He represented such companies as the Union Pacific Railroad, The Kansas City Star newspaper, Montgomery Ward, and the City National Bank And Trust.
Nominated by Dwight D. Eisenhower for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, he then moved into the US Supreme Court, the first from either Missouri or Kansas. Whittaker developed a good reputation as a judge, and he was considered a “swing vote.” But after only five years on the court, no landmark cases were being decided, and he struggled to establish himself. His accomplishments are difficult to evaluate since he tended to side with the majority side. Whittaker also suffered from depression and a strong fear of failure, and consistently doubted himself as a qualified judge. He retired in 1962 due to “physical exhaustion,” as well as a nervous breakdown.
Whittaker became the first individual to serve as a judge on a federal district court, a federal court of appeals, and the US Supreme Court. After he retired from the Court in 1962, he served as chief counsel at General Motors and continued as a corporate arbitrator. Whittaker declined his Supreme Court pension, preferring to work for his income.
Charles Whittaker passed away at the age of 72 from a ruptured abdominal aneurysm. His legacy includes the downtown federal courthouse, completed in 1998, known as the Charles Evans Whittaker United States Courthouse.
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