A largely unnoticed story about Carly Fiorina is that she is the daughter of a man who was one of the finest lawyers of his generation. His influence on her, she says, is “huge.” Asked in an interview whether he would be surprised by her bid for the Oval Office, Fiorina said he “probably would be,” adding, “I hope he would be proud. I think he would be proud.”
Joseph Tyree Sneed III was born in 1920 in a small town about 100 miles northeast of Austin, Texas. His father was a cotton farmer and cattle rancher, and Sneed grew up, it appears, quite at home on the range, fancying himself a cowboy. After high school, he went to the oldest university in the state, Southwestern, in Georgetown, graduating in 1941 with a degree in business administration. He entered the University of Texas School of Law in Austin, but left in 1942 to join the U.S. Army Air Corps. After the war, Sneed resumed his legal education, finishing in 1947 at the top of his class. The faculty had a high regard for Sneed and asked him to stay on as a professor.
In Austin, where Carly was born in 1954, Sneed excelled as a scholar and teacher. In 1957, Cornell Law School hired him from Texas, and in 1962, Stanford Law School, then scouring the country for accomplished professors, hired him from Cornell. Sneed’s claim to fame was his work in tax law. His pathbreaking book was Configurations of Gross Income (1967), which, as one reviewer summarized it, “on a grand scale and with much success” filled “the longstanding gap between economic theory and pure legal analysis.” The reviewer added, “This is a book that most teachers of tax law will wish they had written.”
In 1971, Duke Law School sought out Sneed to be its dean. As her father mulled whether to take the job, Carly Sneed was about to enter her senior year in high school and wasn’t keen on pulling up roots in California for the unknown of Durham, N.C. She told her father as much. “I was complaining,” she says. “I didn’t want to move.” Fiorina recalls her father’s response: “Carly, sometimes you just have to follow your star.” The Sneeds moved east.
Sneed was the rare dean of a distinguished law school who was Republican. Not long after arriving in Durham he met President Nixon, whose law degree was from Duke. The dean and the president hit it off, and in February 1973 Nixon appointed Sneed deputy attorney general, the second-ranking position at the Justice Department. Sneed was in no way connected to the Watergate scandal, and those who knew him well say that when a seat opened on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, he was pleased that Nixon asked him to fill it. Roughly a week passed between his nomination and confirmation, and on August 24, 1973, Sneed was commissioned. Sneed spent just six months as deputy attorney general; his principal accomplishment was helping defuse the tensions during the 71-day standoff at Wounded Knee, probably saving lives as a result.
Sneed served almost 14 years on the Ninth Circuit, taking senior status in 1987 and participating in cases as long as his health permitted. He was 87 when he passed away in 2008. Clerks of his I spoke with for this article remembered him as a trusted mentor and a wise teacher. And they invariably remarked on his intellectual curiosity, which led him (among other pursuits) to write a history of the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment, Footprints on the Rocks of the Mountain (1997), a book he hoped could assist judges in deciding cases brought under that part of the Constitution. In the book’s epilogue, addressing late-twentieth-century controversies over individual and group rights, Sneed expressed his view that “freedom’s focus should remain on the individual; and equality should be absolute with respect to the individual’s basic civil rights, and in accordance with his capacities in other respects,” adding, “This will not be easy.”
Sneed’s legacy as a judge is found in his many opinions and the judicial philosophy they reflected. He was a judicial conservative, concerned perhaps above all that the courts not stray beyond their limited jurisdiction. A case in which Sneed’s court did that was Rucker v. Davis. At issue was the meaning of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which required that every public housing lease include a provision permitting termination of tenancy when a tenant or members of his household or guests engaged in “drug-related criminal activity on or near public housing premises.” Those challenging that requirement said public housing tenancies could not be terminated for drug activity on the premises unless the tenants knew about the activity, and the Ninth Circuit agreed.