Kenesaw Mountain Landis


Kenesaw Mountain Landis : biography

November 20, 1866 – November 25, 1944

Landis hoped that the Kaiser, Wilhelm II would be captured and tried in his court; he wanted to indict the Kaiser for the murder of a Chicagoan who lost his life on the RMS Lusitania in 1915. The State Department notified Landis that extradition treaties did not permit the rendition of the Kaiser, who fled into exile in the Netherlands as the war concluded. Nevertheless, in a speech, Landis demanded that Kaiser Wilhelm, his six sons, and 5,000 German military leaders "be lined up against a wall and shot down in justice to the world and to Germany".

Even with the armistice in November 1918, the war-related trials continued. The Socialist Party of America, like the IWW, had opposed the war, and had also been raided by federal authorities. Seven Socialist Party leaders, including Victor Berger, who was elected to Congress in November 1918, were indicted for alleged anti-war activities. The defendants were charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it illegal "to utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language" about the armed forces, the flag, the Constitution, or democracy. The defendants, who were mostly of German birth or descent, moved for a change of venue away from Landis’s courtroom, alleging that Landis had stated on November 1, 1918 that "[i]f anybody has said anything about the Germans that is worse than I have said, I would like to hear it so I could use it myself." Landis, however, examined the transcript of the trial in which the statement was supposedly made, failed to find it, declared the affidavit in support of the motion "perjurious", and denied the motion. While the jury was being selected, Berger was indicted on additional espionage charges for supposedly violating the law during an earlier, unsuccessful political campaign. At the conclusion of the case, Landis took an hour to dramatically charge the jury, emphasizing the secretive nature of conspiracies and pointing at the jury box as he noted, "the country was then at war". At one point, Landis leapt out of his seat, twirled his chair around, then sat on its arm. Later in his charge, he lay prone upon the bench. The jury took less than a day to convict Congressman-elect Berger and his four remaining codefendants. Landis sentenced each defendant to twenty years in federal prison. Landis denied the defendants bail pending appeal; but they quickly obtained it from an appellate court judge. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals declined to rule on the case itself, sending it on to the Supreme Court, which on January 31, 1921 overturned the convictions and sentences by a 6–3 vote, holding that Landis should have stepped aside once he was satisfied that the affidavit was legally sufficient, leaving it for another judge to decide whether it was actually true. Landis refused to comment on the Supreme Court’s decision, which ordered a new trial. In 1922, charges against the defendants were dropped by the government.

Building trades award, controversy, and resignation (1920–1922)

The postwar period saw considerable deflation; the shortage of labor and materials during the war had led to much higher wages and prices, and in the postwar economic readjustment, wages were cut heavily. In Chicago, employers in the building trades attempted a 20% wage cut; when this was rejected by the unions, a lockout followed. Both sides agreed to submit the matter to a neutral arbitrator, and settled on Landis, who agreed to take the case in June 1921. By this time, Landis was Commissioner of Baseball, and still a federal judge. In September, Landis issued his report, cutting wages by an average of 12.5%. To improve productivity, he also struck restrictions on machinery which saved labor, established a standardized overtime rate, and resolved jurisdictional conflicts between unions. The labor organizations were not completely satisfied, but Landis’s reforms were adopted in many places across the country and were credited with reviving the building industry.