The Louisiana Supreme Court has moved its controversial portrait of Ernest Benjamin Kruttschnitt (1852-1906) from its longtime location on a wall by the entry to the courtroom to the mezzanine level where no one goes. If I may editorialize for a moment: This is no way treat a man who was a major driving force behind the construction of Louisiana’s Supreme Court building!
I learned of this unsettling development earlier this year on a visit to the Supreme Court, where I covertly shot a picture of his beautiful portrait in its barely accessible new home. The move was taken after the publication in recent years of articles in legal reviews that cast the great lawyer’s legacy in a new, and very dark light.
No one would disagree that Kruttschnitt was one of the most brilliant attorneys of his time. A partner in one of the city’s most illustrious law firms, he twice turned down opportunities to become governor of the state. He was president of Louisiana’s second State Constitutional Convention in 1898.
During that convention, he unfortunately wielded his power to pass provisions that denied African-Americans the right to vote. He also used his legal acumen to craft revisions to the state constitution that permitted non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal trials. In this way, largely white juries could overrule objections from black jurors.
Some legal historians don’t think the Supreme Court should celebrate Kruttschnitt’s legacy. Robert Smith, in a 2010 paper entitled “Second-Class Justice,” questioned why a wood-framed portrait of Kruttschnitt, who led the fight “to perpetuate the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race in Louisiana,” hangs prominently outside the entrance to the courtroom of the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court apparently heard Smith’s case — though the deliberations must have been private — and ruled in his favor, moving the portrait. Kruttschnitt, who never married, unfortunately didn’t leave behind direct descendants to defend his interests. So here she goes.
In focusing on Kruttschnitt’s racist legacy, detractors have overlooked the major contribution Kruttschnitt made to raise funds to get the Supreme Court building built. It was under Kruttschnitt’s leadership that the 1898 Constitutional Convention passed a provision calling on the state legislature to provide “suitable quarters” for the Supreme Court and the state library.
In his January 8, 1908 address commemorating the new building, Henry Dart, a member of the Courthouse Commission, credited Bernard McCloskey with doing much of the lobbying that produced funds to construct the building. McCloskey, who was president of the Louisiana Bar in 1902, “abandoned his practice…and fought the good fight unremittingly.”
“President McCloskey has his Courthouse, but I must say, however, that through the fight there stood alongside of him one whose name the Bar will hold in perpetual reverence–Ernest Benjamin Kruttschnitt. He was at that time Chairman of the Democratic State Central Committee, and he probably knew more public men, and knew them better, than any other man in the state.
“He stood elbow to elbow with McCloskey, and when the fight was won it was won by a combination of two blood strains pulling together–the dominating Irish and the Americanized second generation of Teutonia.”
The state ultimately appointed Kruttschnitt along with four other citizens to a Courthouse Commission charged with getting the building constructed. The state authorized $575,000 in funding — the state gave $200,000, the city of New Orleans $375,000. McCloskey was elected president; Kruttschnitt vice president. Kruttschnitt didn’t live to see the building finished. He died in 1906 and was replaced by Dart.
Kruttschnitt’s portrait hung by the entrance to the courtroom because he was one of two people most responsible for getting it built. It should be moved back. Time to start a petition.