Supreme Court Season, Part 9

John Blair, Samuel Chase, Gabriel Duvall, Philip Barbour, Peter V. Daniel, Dr. Samuel Miller, Henry Billings Brown, William Moody, Joseph Lamar, Louis Brandeis, William O. Douglas, John Paul Stevens, Elena Kagan

John Blair, Samuel Chase, Gabriel Duvall, Philip Barbour, Peter V. Daniel, Dr. Samuel Miller, Henry Billings Brown, William Moody, Joseph Lamar, Louis Brandeis, William O. Douglas, John Paul Stevens, Elena Kagan

The most junior member of the cohort of justices inaugurated on September 26, 1789 was John Blair (1732-1800).

John Blair, Jr. was born in Williamsburg, colonial Virginia (now Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia) and went to the College of William and Mary before leaving for England and studying law at the Middle Temple, then returned to Virginia to practice law and serve in the House of Burgesses, where he opposed Patrick Henry’s radical calls for revolt but still worked for the Patriots by joining the Virginia constitutional convention in 1776, and later served in various state judgeships starting in 1778. Blair was also one of the Virginia delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

As per most early judges, Blair did little on the Court, resigning in October 1795 and dying on August 31, 1800.

Blair was replaced by Samuel Chase (1741-1811) on January 27, 1796, the last justice appointed by George Washington. He served until he died 15 years later. Chase is also the only US Supreme Court justice to have been impeached.

Samuel Chase was born in southwestern Maryland, moved to Annapolis when he turned 18 and passed the Maryland bar in 1761. (His fellow Annapolis lawyers gave him the nickname “Old Bacon Face”.) He served in the Maryland General Assembly from 1764 to 1784, where he garnered a reputation for being brash and temperamental. He represented Maryland at the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. He moved to Baltimore in 1786 and became chief judge of the Baltimore District Criminal Court in 1788 and Chief Justice of the Maryland General Court in 1791, holding both posts until 1796.

Chase was an ardent Federalist on the bench, and after criticizing the government’s judicial policy in 1803, Thomas Jefferson convinced Rep. J. Hopper Nicholson to impeach Chase. The House indicted Chase with 8 counts of various misdemeanours on circuit duty in late 1804. The Senate voted to acquit Chase of all charges on March 1, 1805, thus affirming the independence of the judiciary in America.

Old Bacon Face died of a heart attack in June 1811. He was buried in Baltimore, in the same cemetery as Francis Scott Key.

On November 23, 1811, James Madison appointed Gabriel Duvall (1752-1844) to replace Chase. Legal scholars contend that Duvall has a serious claim to the title of being the most useless judge in Supreme Court history.

Gabriel Duvall was born in southeastern Maryland and passed the bar in 1778.He worked as a clerk of the state militia and of the Maryland House of Delegates, of which he was a member from 1787 to 1794. he was a US Congressman from 1794 to 1796, Chief Justice of the Maryland General Court from 1796 to 1802, and Comptroller of the U.S. Treasury from 1802 to 1811.

In the 23 years Duvall sat on the bench he wrote only 18 opinions: 15 majority, 2 concurring, and one dissent, in cases mostly concerning financial matters or Maryland state law. By the end of his career he had become feeble and deaf, clinging to his post for fear of who might follow him. He retired in January 1835 and died 9 years later at his home in Glenn Dale, Maryland.

Philip Barbour (1783-1841) replaced Duvall on March 15, 1836, and served until his death in February of 1841. His brother, James Barbour, was Secretary of War under John Quincy Adams.

Philip Pendleton Barbour was born in Virginia and went to William and Mary. He was a member of the Virginia assembly from 1812 to 1814 and a Congressman from 1814 to 1825 and again from 1827 to 1830; he was Speaker of the House from 1821 to 1823. In 1830 he was appointed to the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, serving to 1836.

Barbour was firmly a Jacksonian Democrat, but did not do much on the Court. He died in 1841 of a heart attack in the middle of the Amistad Case. A county in West Virginia was named after him.

Peter V. Daniel (1784-1860) was appointed by Martin van Buren on March 3, 1841, and served until his death.

Peter Vivian Daniel was born in northern Virginia and went to Princeton for a year before passing the Virginia bar in 1808. He was a member of the Virginia assembly from 1809 to 1812 and Lieutenant-Governor of Virginia from 1818 to 1836. He was appointed to Philip Barbour’s vacated seat on the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in 1836.

Daniel authored only one important opinion in his career, 1848’s West River Bridge Co. v. Dix, which established that it was not unconstitutional for a government to violate a grant or contract in the course of exercising its powers of eminent domain. Daniel died in Richmond in March 1860.

President James “The Old Public Functionary” Buchanan attempted to fill the seat with his attorney-general, Jeremiah S. Black, but the Senate rejected him in 1861. The seat stayed vacant until July 16, 1862, when president Abraham Lincoln appointed Dr. Samuel Miller (1816-1890) to the Supreme Court. He served until his death.

Samuel Freeman Miller was born in Richmond, Kentucky, and got a medical degree from Transylvania University in Lexington. He passed the bar in 1847 after studying law in his spare time. Miller was an abolitionist, so he moved to the free state of Iowa, settling in Keokuk. He became an incredibly well-respected member of the legal community and of the Republican Party – so much so that the Senate confirmed his appointment to the Supreme Court within half an hour of receiving it.

On the Court, Miller backed the policies of the Lincoln administration. He was in the majority on 1876’s United States v. Cruikshank, which held the government was powerless to stop private citizens from violating the constitutional rights of others, but wrote the opinion on 1884’s Ex parte Yarborough, which ruled the government had the power to protect blacks from the KKK. Overall, Miller was extremely productive on the Court, writing twice as many opinions as any of his benchmates. The legal establishment clamoured for his appointment as Chief Justice in 1873, but it went to Morrison Waite instead.

Miller also sat on the commission to determine the victor of the 1876 presidential election, voting for Rutherford Hayes. Miller died in DC in October 1890 and was buried in Keokuk.

Henry Billings Brown (1836-1913) was appointed to the Supreme Court by Benjamin Harrison on29 December 1890, and sat until May 1906. He was responsible for one of the worst decisions in Supreme Court history by writing the majority opinion for Plessy v. Ferguson.

Henry Billings Brown was born in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts and graduated from Yale in 1856. He then moved to Detroit and became an expert on Great Lakes shipping law, occasionally serving as a county judge and as a deputy US Marshall. He hired someone to take his place in the Union Army during the Civil War, and became financially independent after the death of his father-in-law, a rich lumber merchant. He was appointed to a seat on the US District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in 1875, serving until 1890. He also taught admiralty law at the University of Michigan Law school and medical law at Detroit Medical College, and wrote a textbook on admiralty law for Georgetown University.

Besides his majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown also concurred in Lochner v. New York, but also wrote for the Court in 1898’s Holden v. Hardy, which upheld a Utah law limiting the work days of miners. He was largely against government intervention in business, but supported federal income tax.

Brown went mostly blind in his old age and retired at the age of 70. He died of heart failure in Bronxville, N.Y.

William Moody (1853-1917) was appointed by Teddy Roosevelt to replace Brown on December 12, 1906, and sat for a month short of four years.

William Henry Moody was born in Newbury, Massachusetts, and graduated from Harvard in 1876, where he was friends and classmates with Teddy Roosevelt. He was appointed US Attorney for Eastern Massachusetts in 1890 and was the junior prosecutor in the Lizzie Borden murder case. He was elected to Congress from 1895 to 1902, then served as Secretary of the Navy from 1902 to 1904 and Attorney-General from 1904 to 1906.

In his brief time on the Court, Moody wrote 67 opinions, including the majority opinion in 1908’s Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co. v. Mottley, which limited federal civil judicial jurisdiction to cases where the plaintiff’s cause of action is based on federal law.

In 1908 Moody was struck by rheumatism, which crippled him so much that he left the Supreme Court to recuperate on May 7, 1909, and never returned. He resigned in November 1910 after receiving a special pension from Congress and died at Haverhill, Mass., in July 1917. A Navy destroyer in World War I, the USS Moody, was named after him.

William Howard Taft chose Joseph Lamar (1857-1916) to succeed Moody on December 12, 1910, and he served for about five years.

Joseph Rucker Lamar was born in northern Georgia and graduated from the University of Georgia in 1877, then studied law at Washington and Lee before setting up a law practice in Augusta, Ga. He was a member of the Georgia state assembly from 1886 to 1889 and served on the Georgia Supreme Court from 1901 to 1905.

Lamar did not do much in his time on the Court, but he did represent America at the ABC Powers Conference of 1914, averting the US from declaring war on Mexico over some border incidents during the Mexican Revolution. He received a formal Thanks from Congress for his work there.

Lamar’s work schedule played havoc with his health and he died on January 2, 1916. He was buried in Augusta.

Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), the first Jew to serve on the Supreme Court, and arguably the first liberal Justice in the modern sense of the word, was appointed by Woodrow Wilson on June 1, 1916, and served for almost 23 years, until February 13, 1939.

Louis Dembitz Brandeis was born in Louisville, Kentucky, to Bohemian immigrant parents. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1877 with the highest GPA in the school’s history (a record that stood for over 80 years thereafter). The next year he took a job at a law firm in St. Louis, but seven months later returned to Boston to start his own law practice. He became so successful that Melville Fuller, the Chief Justice, recommended Brandeis to a friend as “the best attorney he knew of in the Eastern U.S.” Increasingly, Brandeis turned to prosecuting monopolies and big business and defending workers’ rights pro bono, to the point he was known as “the People’s Lawyer.” He developed an interest in Zionism in the early 1900s and encouraged Jewish settlement in Palestine. He was active in the Progressive Party and stood behind the liberal tendencies of the Wilson administration, leading to his appointment to the Supreme Court.

Brandeis quickly established himself as the most liberal member of the Court. He opposed the pro-business hegemony of the Lochner Era; in this, he was allied with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who opposed overturning legislative acts protecting workers. Brandeis later allied with Harlan Stone and Benjamin Cardozo as “the Three Musketeers” to defend FDR’s New Deal legislation before the Court. Brandeis was an early proponents to the right to privacy, and was largely in favour of unregulated free speech, with the exception of speech with a “captive audience”, such as on billboards, a distinction he made in writing the majority opinion for 1932’s Packer Corporation v. Utah.

Brandeis’s poor eyesight worsened in his old age and retired in February 1939, then died of a heart attack in October 1941. Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., is named after him, as is the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville; also, a suburb of the Israeli city of Hadera is named Kfar Brandeis in his honour.

William O. Douglas (1898-1980) took his seat on the Supreme Court on April 12, 1939. He held it for nearly 37 years, the longest term of service in Supreme Court history. He also holds the Court record for written opinions (1,164), dissenting opinions (484), marriages (4) and divorces (3).

William Orville Douglas was born in Otter Tail County, Minnesota, the son of a Presbyterian minister from Nova Scotia. The family later settled in Washington state, and Douglas got a scholarship to Whitman College in Walla Walla, working his way through school as a waiter, janitor, and cherry picker. He taught in high schools for 2 years after graduating to save up for law school, graduating 5th in his class from Columbia Law School in 1925. He got a job with a rich New York firm, but quit soon after and taught law at Columbia, and later Yale, before leaving to work for the Securities and Exchange Commission, becoming Chairman of the SEC in 1937 and a close friend to FDR.

“Wild Bill” Douglas’s struggle-ridden upbringing had shaped him into one of the staunchest defenders of the poor and disenfranchised the Supreme Court had ever seen. He was openly partisan on the Court, saying, “The Constitution is not neutral.” He clashed with Felix Frankfurter over matters of judicial restraint and rarely used text or precedent in his short, pithy opinions, relying instead on philosophy and contemporary societal observations. He was suspicious of the “tyranny of the majority” and wrote the Court’s opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut, establishing a Constitutional right to privacy, a point with which he split with his longtime ally, Hugo Black. In 1953 he granted a stay of execution to the spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; Chief Justice Vinson overturned the stay, and Douglas briefly faced congressional impeachment proceedings that ultimately went nowhere. He was an environmentalist; his dissent in 1972’s Sierra Club v. Morton argued that certain inanimate objects, like trees, should have a certain sort of legal standing before the Court. (Douglas sat on the Board of Directors for the Sierra Club from 1960 to 1962, and wrote a glowing review of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring for the Book-of-the-Month Club.) Douglas wrote more than two dozen books in his lifetime (more than any other justice), mostly about law, nature, and philosophy, as well as a few autobiographies.

By the late 1960s most of Douglas’s salary had been taken up by his divorces and he had to take work on the side, including for a possibly illicit group called the Parvin Foundation, which had in its crosshairs House minority leader Rep. Gerald Ford. Abe Fortas was also tangled up in the Parvin Foundation; his personal justification for resigning in 1969 was to protect Douglas from investigation. Nevertheless, in April 1970 Rep. Ford moved to start impeachment hearings against Douglas that were eventually stopped when no evidence of wrongdoing was found.

On New Year’s Eve 1974 Douglas suffered a crippling stroke while on vacation in the Bahamas, but attempted to return to work despite being severely disabled. He finally retired at the urging of his old friend Abe Fortas on November 12, 1975, after 36 years and 209 days on the bench. Even then, Douglas assumed he had taken senior status and continued to attempt to work, only stopping after all nine justices signed a formal letter asking him to stop when he tried to submit an opinion in the case of Gregg v. Georgia in 1976. Douglas died on January 19, 1980, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, despite there being no proof he ever served in the military.

Douglas’s old nemesis, President Gerald Ford, appointed as his successor John Paul Stevens (1920-present), who took office on December 19, 1975. When he retired in 2010 at the age of 90, he became the 2nd-oldest and 3rd-longest serving justice in Supreme Court history.

John Paul Stevens was born in Chicago to a rich family; his father owned the largest hotel in Chicago (it is still standing, and is now the Chicago Hilton). As a boy he met Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, and was at Wrigley Field to see Babe Ruth hit his famous “called shot” in the 1932 World Series. He earned a BA in English from the University of Chicago in 1941 and was working on his master’s when he left to join the Navy in world War II; working as a codebreaker, he was awarded a Bronze Star for his help in the assassination of Admiral Yamamoto in 1943. After the war he went to Northwestern Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 1947 with the highest GPA in the school’s history. He then served as a clerk to justice Wiley Rutledge in 1947, then practiced law in Chicago from 1948 to 1970, when he was appointed to the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, serving until 1975.

Stevens was a diligent, if uninspiring, justice. He often wrote dissenting opinions and allowed his beliefs to change with experience; for example, where he initially opposed affirmative action, he grew to support it in his later years. From the late 1980s onward he was generally considered a liberal judge. Justice Stevens retired on June 29, 2010, and is enjoying a quiet retirement.

Elena Kagan (1960-present), currently the most junior of all Supreme Court justices, was appointed by Barack Obama on August 7, 2010.

Elena Kagan was born on the Upper West Side of New York to a family of middle-class Conservative Jews. She dressed as a judge for her high school yearbook photo. She went to Princeton, got a scholarship to Oxford, and earned a JD from Harvard Law School in 1986. She clerked for Thurgood Marshall (who called her “Shorty”) and went into private practice in DC. She was a professor at the University of Chicago Law School from 1991 to 1999, when she was nominated to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit; her nomination lapsed, and so Kagan returned to teaching, joining the faculty of Harvard Law School in 1999 and becoming Dean in 2003, where she won favour with her students by creating a more student-friendly environment. Barack Obama appointed her as the first female Solicitor-General in 2009, and she argued the Government’s position before the Supreme Court in the 2010 case of Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission.

As Kagan has no previous judicial experience, she remains a largely untested quantity. The legal analyst Jeffery Rosen has praised her as “unusually eloquent”, and she’s more or less considered a safe liberal seat on the Court, having so far voted to uphold Obamacare and gay marriage.


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