History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  Olmstead v. United States: The Constitutional Challenges of Prohibition Enforcement — Historical Background and Documents

George Francis Vanderveer (1875–1942)
Defense lawyer

George Francis Vanderveer was born in Iowa on August 2, 1875. At his father’s urging, he attended college at the new Stanford University in California, and then attended Columbia Law School. Vanderveer moved to the boomtown of Seattle, renewed his connections with school friends, and became associated with the business and legal leaders of the city.

Vanderveer took a job with the prosecuting attorney of King County. As a prosecutor, Vanderveer developed into an able courtroom warrior. He disliked the webs of corruption that characterized local politics, and he made a political enemy of the owner of the Seattle Daily Times, Alden J. Blethen. Despite the strong opposition of that paper, Vanderveer won election in 1908 as prosecuting attorney of King County. (Years later, during the Olmstead trial, the Seattle Daily Times, then being published by C.B. Blethen, son of Alden, did not print Vanderveer’s name even though Vanderveer was the most active of the defense attorneys.) Vanderveer quickly became a crusading prosecutor, especially targeting corruption in the city. He was a one-term office holder, and his crusading work was quickly undone by the election of a wide-open mayor.

Vanderveer went into private practice, specializing in criminal defense and was soon defending people like those he had previously prosecuted. Vanderveer became famous defending the radical laborers of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies); at the same time he became alienated from the business community. To make a living he began working for those individuals who took advantage of loopholes in Washington’s Prohibition system. The state Prohibition law of 1916 allowed legal importation of alcohol and sale for medicinal purposes. The latter provision prompted the entry of existing drug stores into the retail liquor business and also the birth of new drug stores, whose major purpose was to supply alcoholic beverages. Vanderveer devised means to take advantage of these gaps in the state Prohibition law, and he was closely identified with bootleggers.

In late 1924, his longtime girlfriend committed suicide, and Vanderveer began drinking heavily. Nevertheless, he was still recognized by many in the area as an aggressive and able courtroom advocate, so a good number of defendants in the Olmstead case hired him to conduct their defense. Olmstead, though a legal defeat, showcased Vanderveer’s crusading side. Until the end of his life in 1942, he served as a lawyer to a great number of labor unions.


Submit Questions About Judicial History