Stanley Reed was born in Minerva, Kentucky on December 31, 1884. He was the only child of John and Frances (Forman) Reed. He obtained bachelor's degrees from Kentucky Wesleyan University and Yale University. Although Reed studied law at the University of Virginia, Columbia University and the Sorbonne, he did not obtain a law degree.
Reed began practicing law in 1910 in Kentucky. He served in the United States Army during World War I. After nearly two decades in private practice, Reed was appointed to the Federal Farm Board by President Herbert Hoover. Subsequently, Reed became the general counsel to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and remained there after FDR became President in March 1933. Reed successfully defended FDR's decision to leave the gold standard (Gold Clause Cases, 1935), and was then appointed Solicitor General. After the retirement of George Sutherland (one of the so called Four Horsemen) in early 1938, FDR nominated Reed to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was almost immediately confirmed.
Reed supported the efforts of the administration to regulate the economy. Although from a state in which segregation existed (Kentucky), Reed joined the unanimous decision of the Court in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and struck down the "white primary" system in Smith v. Allwright (1944). Reed opposed the complete incorporation of the Bill of Rights into the 14th Amendment (which would have made all of those rights applicable to the states as well as the federal government). He was most proud of his lone dissent in Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), the first case to declare state action violative of the Establishment Clause. Reed believed that efforts to extirpate religion in public life was incorrect as a matter of history. Reed disliked the phrase "separation of church and state," claiming, "A rule of law should not be drawn from a figure of speech."
Reed retired from the Court in February 1957. He married Winifred Elgin in 1908. He died on April 2, 1980.