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Field, Stephen Johnson

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Birth: November 4, 1816, Haddam, Connecticut.

Education: Graduated Williams College, 1837; studied law in private firms; admitted to the New York bar in 1841.

Official Positions: Alcalde of Marysville, 1850; California state representative, 1850–1851; justice, California Supreme Court, 1857–1863.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated associate justice by President Abraham Lincoln, March 7, 1863, for a newly created seat; confirmed by the Senate, March 10, 1863, by a voice vote; took judicial oath May 20, 1863; retired December 1, 1897; replaced by Joseph McKenna, nominated by President William McKinley.

Death: April 9, 1899, in Washington, D.C.

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Stephen Johnson Field
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Stephen Johnson Field

Stephen J. Field, the justice with the second-longest tenure in Supreme Court history, spent his early youth in Connecticut and Massachusetts. He then lived in Europe for several years with a sister and brother-in-law before returning to Massachusetts to attend Williams College in the early 1830s.

Field was part of a large and accomplished family, which most likely helped to stoke his ambitious and independent spirit. After college graduation, he read law in the office of his eldest brother, David Dudley Field Jr., a noted New York attorney who would later gain prominence for the Field Code, an effort to provide a streamlined codification of New York law. Stephen Field's bar preparation was interrupted briefly by a disabling accident, after which he resumed studies in the Albany office of John Van Buren, the attorney general of New York. Field was admitted to practice in New York in 1841 and for the next six years practiced law with David Field, ending the partnership to return to Europe in 1848. Intrigued by tales of fame and fortune from the burgeoning gold-rush territory, Field decided in 1849 to move to California, where he was to spend the remainder of his prominent pre-Court career.

He sailed to San Francisco and quickly became active in political and business affairs. Within three weeks of his arrival in California, he helped to found the town of Marysville at the junction of the Yuba and Feather Rivers, purchased a significant amount of property, and was elected the town's alcalde, a quasipolitical, quasijudicial office that entailed service as both mayor and chief civil magistrate. By Field's own account, he used this position to establish Marysville as a “model town” through a combination of bold leadership and legal acumen. When the office of alcalde was abolished by the adoption of the 1850 California Constitution, Field then established a successful law practice in Marysville. He also won election to a Democratic seat in the California legislature, where he assumed a critical role in drafting the new state's civil and criminal codes. He left the legislature to run for the state senate in 1851, but did not win. He returned to law practice for six years before winning election to the California Supreme Court in 1857 and was elevated to the position of chief justice in 1861.

In his turbulent half-decade on the California Supreme Court, Field honed a reputation for personal brashness, frontier spirit, and stubborn independence that later characterized his lengthy tenure on the U.S. Supreme Court. Self-confident and outspoken, Field developed during this period well-publicized friendships with Leland Stanford and other famous tycoons of industry. These conspicuous connections to California business catalyzed his professional success, but they also fueled public criticism of him as arrogant and corrupt. Ultimately, however, the more positive aspects of Field's reputation prevailed: in 1863, when Congress added a tenth seat to the Supreme Court to ensure a majority of pro-Union votes and to avail itself of a westerner's likely expertise in land and mining cases, Field handily won unanimous acclamation from Stanford and the California congressional delegation as the best jurist to represent the new Pacific Coast circuit.

From his earliest years on the Court, Field's opinions displayed tenacity, clarity, and boldness of vision; he was an ardent critic of government—especially federal—interference in private business and never hesitated to be the lone dissenter when his tireless powers of persuasion failed to win over his colleagues. Field's admonition shortly before his death that judges must speak out with “absolute fearlessness” was evidently embraced throughout his judicial career. From a prolific lifetime oeuvre of 640 opinions on the Court, he wrote dissenting opinions in 86 cases and dissented a total of 220 times, 64 times alone. As he proclaimed in departing from the Court's judgment in the Second Legal Tender Cases (1871): “The only loyalty which I can admit consists in obedience to the Constitution and the laws made in pursuance of it.” Such avowed singularity of vision, however, can also foster intellectual myopia, and Field's jurisprudence may be characterized by his adherence at least as often to his own peculiar brand of judicial dogmatism as to the Constitution itself.

Field's first ten years on the Court involved significant challenges, not only to the exercise of federal executive and legislative authority following the Civil War, but also to the nature and scope of postbellum judicial review. Certainly, the Court's tragic decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) was a “self-inflicted wound” to its own legitimacy during this period, and, as Edward S. Corwin noted:

During neither the Civil War nor the period of Reconstruction did the Supreme Court play anything like its role of supervision, with the result that during the one period the military powers of the President underwent undue expansion, and during the other, the legislative powers of Congress. The Court itself was conscious of its weakness.… [A]t no time since Jefferson's first administration has its indepen-dence been in greater jeopardy than between 1860 and 1870.

Into this arena of ambivalence entered Field, who sought to puncture any assumptions regarding the politically precarious circumstances of his own wartime appointment as the “tenth justice” by resolutely determining “to apply the Constitution as strictly as though no war had ever existed.” (In fact, Field was the tenth justice for only two years: John Catron's death in 1865, James M. Wayne's death in 1867, and Robert C. Grier's resignation in 1870 gradually reduced the Court's membership to seven, and it was not restored to the newly fixed full membership of nine until 1870.) In Ex parte Milligan (1866), Field joined a unanimous Court in holding that President Abraham Lincoln had acted unconstitutionally by permitting military commission trials for civilians in nonwar areas in which civil courts had continued to function, and joined a 5–4 majority in holding that even Congress and the president acting together during wartime lacked the constitutional power to authorize such tribunals. Such clear-cut Court repudiations of presidential and congressional authority were not well received, and Field soon became the target of venomous public criticism for his views.

Consternation over the Milligan opinions was further heightened by the controversial Test Oath Cases (Cummings v. Missouri and Ex parte Garland, 1867), in which Field wrote for each 5–4 majority in striking down laws requiring retrospective Union loyalty oaths as conditions of employment. In Cummings, the Court invalidated a Missouri regulation requiring persons in the professions to swear past and present loyalty to the Union; in Garland, the Court struck down a federal statute imposing a similar oath on attorneys seeking to practice law in the federal courts. In declaring both test oath laws invalid under the bill of attainder and ex post facto provisions of the Constitution, Field demonstrated a willingness to exercise fully and seriously the Court's power of review, even in the face of vociferous objections from Congress and the public. In an intriguing harbinger of future jurisprudential concerns, Field's majority opinions also focused particularly on the importance of preserving the individual's inalienable right to pursue a lawful occupation free from government restraint—a central tenet that Field would invoke frequently in the decades to come. In the meantime, congressional and public reaction to the decisions in Milligan and the Test Oath Cases ranged from legislative proposals for impeachment of the majority justices to press condemnation of the decisions as “Dred Scott Number Two” and “Dred Scott Number Three.”

Despite—or perhaps because of—such trenchant criticism so early in his Court career, Field began to carve a niche for himself on the Court and in the national spotlight. Nominated for the presidency by the California delegation at the Democratic National Convention of 1868, he was hailed as “a wall of fire against the encroachments of Radical domination” and “the guardian of the Constitution of his country against all the power of the Radical party.” Field's paltry showing in convention ballots quashed any hope of election, but his willingness to be considered for the presidency so early in his Court career may be an indication not only of his lingering political ambitions, but also of the power and influence he hoped to wield in shaping the direction of the Court.

Field's first decade on the Court drew to a close with a series of cases concerning Reconstruction-era legislation, and they illustrate both the tenuous nature of the postbellum Court and the ready iconoclasm with which Field criticized the views of his brethren. In Ex parte McCardle (1869), the Court considered a southern editor's habeas corpus petition for release from military imprisonment for obstructing Reconstruction efforts. The Court first heard the case in its 1868 term. Shortly after oral argument, Congress—fearing that William McCardle's appeal would afford the Court the opportunity to declare the Reconstruction Acts unconstitutional—began to consider legislation to revoke the Court's jurisdiction over habeas corpus appeals, including McCardle's. When a majority of the Court agreed to postpone the case until Congress had voted on the jurisdiction-stripping bill, Field joined Justice Grier's acerbic dissent from what they termed the Court's “shameful” abdication of judicial responsibility. Nevertheless, Field's dismay did not affect his ultimate position regarding the proper procedural disposition of the case. When Congress eventually voted to pass the bill, Field and Grier, without comment, joined the rest of the Court in dismissing the appeal.

Another example of Field's outspokenness during this era was his unswerving criticism of the Legal Tender Acts, wartime statutes authorizing the substitution of paper money—“greenbacks”—for gold and silver in the payment of debts. In two decisions in the 1870 and 1871 terms concerning the constitutionality of these acts, Field displayed a characteristically staunch determination to hold fast to his position, even as changes in the Court's composition transformed his view from the majority to the minority. The Court had heard oral arguments in both the 1867 and 1868 terms in the first of these challenges, Hepburn v. Griswold. Because of strong pressures, both internal and external, the Court was unable to reach a decision until late 1869; even then, its tentative preliminary vote of 5–3 to strike down the acts quickly unraveled when an ailing and confused Grier absentmindedly voted in conference first to uphold the acts and then to strike them down. Field persuaded Grier to resign because of his failing health, and Grier left the bench on February 1, 1870.

A week later the Court issued a decision in Hepburn, voting 4–3 to invalidate the Legal Tender Acts as an abrogation of congressional powers and an impairment of freedom of contract as applied to debts incurred before their passage. That same day, President Ulysses S. Grant nominated William Strong, a Pennsylvania state judge, and Joseph P. Bradley, a New Jersey attorney, to fill the vacancies created by Wayne's death and Grier's retirement. Strong and Bradley were confirmed and seated on the Court in March. Within weeks of their arrival, the Court agreed to reconsider the constitutionality of the Legal Tender Acts. This second challenge, Knox v. Lee and Parker v. Davis (known as the Second Legal Tender Cases), was argued in the 1870 term and concerned the same central issue—the power of Congress to pass the acts and apply them to preexisting debts.

This time the Court voted 5–4 to overrule the Hepburn decision of fifteen months before. Field issued a lengthy and vehement dissent, arguing that the acts authorized the repudiation of debts, a “dishonor” and “public crime” unwarranted by the Constitution. Invoking natural law principles in support of his method of constitutional interpretation, Field contended, “It is only by obedience [to the Constitution and its dictates] that affection and reverence can be shown to a superior having a right to command. So thought our Master when he said to his disciples: ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments.’”

Field's other significant opinions in his first decade on the Court include Low v. Austin (1872), in which a unanimous Court held that the constitutional ban on state taxes on imports or exports prohibits state taxes on goods brought in from foreign countries only if those goods retain their character as “imports”; and Bradley v. Fisher (1872), in which the Court recognized the doctrine of judicial immunity, ruling that judges may not be sued in their official capacities, regardless of the error of their actions.

Although Field was quick to establish a bold judicial style on the Court, he did not fully develop his nascent judicial philosophies until his second decade of service, when many of his inchoate leanings coalesced into a distinctive jurisprudence. The period from 1873 to 1888 was by far the most prolific and influential phase of his Supreme Court career. Critical to the development of his jurisprudence were the Civil War amendments: the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, which officially abolished slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, which prohibited the exercise of state action to deny persons the equal protection and due process of the law and the privileges or immunities of national citizenship; and the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, which forbade states to deny anyone the right to vote on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Understood in the context of the Civil War/Reconstruction era in which they were promulgated, these amendments were clearly intended to limit state encroachment on individual liberties in order to undo the evils of slavery and to effect far-reaching goals of racial equality. In their first several decades of implementation, however, the Court construed the Civil War amendments in such a narrow and crabbed fashion that they were virtually unrecognizable as constitutional guarantees.

Field's unique contribution to this interpretive debate lay not in his refusal to view the Civil War amendments as guarantors of personal liberty, but rather in his consistently broad application of the amendments to protect economic and property interests as core human rights, while at the same time endorsing a constricted interpretation of the applicability of the amendments to the eradication of racial discrimination—the amendments' original purpose. These constitutional perspectives, forcefully advanced in majority opinions and in dissents, provided the Court with interpretive tools that would continue to affect its jurisprudence concerning the Civil War amendments throughout the next half-century.

The Court's first definitive statement on the meaning and scope of the Fourteenth Amendment came in the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), cases that had nothing to do with the vestiges of slavery or with the civil rights of blacks. Instead, these cases concerned a challenge by a group of New Orleans butchers against the state of Louisiana's decision to grant a monopoly on the city's slaughterhouse business to one company. This arrangement, the butchers contended, interfered with their right to do business and violated guarantees under the Thirteenth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment's privileges or immunities, equal protection, and due process clauses. By a vote of 5–4, the Court rejected the butchers' argument, holding that their “right to do business” was neither a “privilege or immunity” of U.S. citizenship nor a “property” interest protected by the due process clause. Defending a narrow interpretation of the privileges or immunities clause as protecting only those limited preexisting rights that had previously been recognized as concomitants of federal rather than state citizenship, Justice Samuel Miller wrote on behalf of the majority that any broader interpretation would allow the Court to be “a perpetual censor upon all legislation of the States on the civil rights of their own citizens.”

Field's dissent in the Slaughterhouse Cases is an intriguing exemplar of his concern with the subject of economic liberty and his use of natural law principles in defense of his constitutional reasoning. He said that the privileges or immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment should be interpreted to protect the right of man “to pursue his happiness by following any of the known established trades and occupations …. subject only to such restraints as equally affected all others.” Moreover, he asserted, the Fourteenth Amendment should be read broadly to protect such “inalienable rights, rights which are the gift of the Creator, which the law does not confer, but only recognizes.” Despite the implications of such hortatory language concerning “inalienable rights,” however, Field's forthcoming decisions in interpreting the Civil War amendments would reveal an overarching concern not with the recognition of individual civil—that is, social and political—rights, but with the protection of individual and corporate property rights, economic freedoms, and other forms of private enterprise.

Field's sharply circumscribed definition of “inalienable rights” in social and political terms may be seen in a series of cases throughout the 1870s and early 1880s. In Bradwell v. Illinois (1873), a ruling announced the day after the release of the Slaughterhouse opinions, Field joined with the 8–1 majority to reject Myra Bradwell's privileges or immunities clause challenge to the state of Illinois's refusal, on the grounds of gender, to grant her a license to practice law in its courts. In the context of a female's “right to do business,” Field agreed with the Court's holding that the right to practice law was not a privilege or immunity of American citizenship. A few years later, in Minor v. Happersett (1875), Field joined a unanimous Court in holding that the privileges or immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not guarantee women the right to vote. “The Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage on anyone,” the Court said.

Even for challenges concerning congressional authority to protect blacks' suffrage rights—a constitutional mandate directly traceable to the history and language of the Fifteenth Amendment—Field shared the rest of the Court's refusal to recognize an expansive definition of federally protected individual civil rights under the Civil War amendments. In United States v. Reese (1876), Field agreed with the Court's 8–1 majority in holding that Congress had exceeded its power to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment in enacting a statute that penalized state officials who denied or otherwise obstructed the right of blacks to vote. The Court held that the Fifteenth Amendment did not guarantee the right to vote, but only the right to be free from racial discrimination in the exercise of the state-created right to vote.

In the companion case of United States v. Cruikshank (1876), the Court unanimously dismissed federal indictments brought against Louisiana citizens charged with using fraud and violence to prevent blacks from exercising their right to vote. Here, the Court held that because the indictments at issue had not explicitly averred the existence of racial animus on the part of the defendants, they were therefore not truly federal offenses under the Fifteenth Amendment.

In Ex parte Siebold (1880), Field dissented from the Court's decision upholding the convictions of two state election officers under federal laws for interfering with federal elections, arguing for a narrower construction of congressional power. Although Field occasionally acceded to a broader interpretation of congressional authority under the Fifteenth Amendment's enabling clause—for example, in Ex parte Yarbrough (1884)—his overarching philosophy endorsed severe limitations on the use of the Fifteenth Amendment to protect blacks in the exercise of the franchise.

Field's position with respect to constitutional protections of the civil rights of blacks in other areas was similarly stinting. In the companion cases of Strauder v. West Virginia and Ex parte Virginia and J. D. Coles (1880), Field dissented from two of the few decisions of the era in which the rights of blacks were upheld in challenges under the Civil War amendments. In Strauder, the Court reversed the conviction of a black defendant who had unsuccessfully petitioned during his state court trial for removal to federal court on the grounds that West Virginia's statute excluding blacks from juries deprived him of equal protection of the laws. The majority in Strauder noted that not only was the impartial selection of a jury a “legal right” protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, but also that congressionally authorized removal from state to federal court under circumstances of invidious discrimination was “an ordinary mode of protecting rights and immunities conferred by the Federal Constitution and Laws.” In Ex parte Virginia, the Court upheld a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that prohibited racial discrimination in jury selection, affirming that the purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was indeed to eliminate state bias on the grounds of race and color. Field's dissent asserted that “the equality of protection assured by the Fourteenth Amendment to all persons …. does not imply that they shall be allowed to participate in the administration of its laws …. or to discharge any duties of public trust.”

Finally, in a devastating blow to congressional attempts under the Civil War amendments to reach and prohibit private racial discrimination, Field joined the 8–1 majority in the Civil Rights Cases (1883), holding that neither the Thirteenth nor the Fourteenth Amendment authorized Congress to ban discrimination against blacks in privately owned public accommodations. In so doing, Field agreed with the Court's conclusions that private racial bias did not constitute a badge of slavery or involuntary servitude impermissible under the Thirteenth Amendment, and that private racially discriminatory acts were unreachable under the Fourteenth Amendment absent state action.

In salient contrast to his narrow construction of the Civil War amendments with regard to individual civil rights in areas such as the franchise and jury selection, Field vigorously advanced a broadly expansive interpretation of the amendments with respect to the protection of economic liberties and private enterprise concerns. Indeed, Field's jurisprudence of “property rights” as developed in the 1870s and 1880s has led many historians to label him the most prominent and successful proponent of laissez-faire economics in Court history. Certainly, Field forged a clear-cut impression of probusiness, antistatist predilections that make the laissez-faire label apt and accurate today.

Field's dissent in the Slaughterhouse Cases provided an early indication of the importance with which he regarded economic freedom as a core right enshrined with constitutional protections. Field further developed this concept in Bartemeyer v. Iowa (1874), in which he asserted that the due process and privileges or immunities clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment should be interpreted to protect an individual's right to use, enjoy, sell, and dispose of property free from government interference. He dissented in Munn v. Illinois (1876) and in the other “Granger Cases,” which concerned the constitutionality of state legislation regulating the rates to be set by grain elevator owners. The majority held that such laws were permissible exercises of state police power so long as the use of the grain elevators was “affected with a public interest.” In dissent, Field wrote, “I deny the power of any Legislature under our government to fix the price which one shall receive for his property of any kind.”

In the Sinking Fund Cases (1879), two appeals involving the validity of a 1878 federal law that had required two Pacific railroads (one incorporated by Congress, the other by the state of California) to set aside portions of their earnings in a “sinking fund” to ensure the payment of their debts, Field issued a particularly vehement and detailed dissent. Claiming that the majority endorsed an impairment of contract and a violation of the due process clause, he warned:

The decision will, in my opinion, tend to create insecurity in the title to corporate property in the country.… Where contracts are impaired, or when operating against the government are sought to be evaded and avoided by legislation, a blow is given to the security of all property. If the government will not keep its faith, little better can be expected from the citizen. If contracts are not observed, no property will in the end be respected; and all history shows that rights of persons are unsafe where property is insecure. Protection to one goes with protection to the other; and there can be neither prosperity nor progress where this foundation of all just government is unsettled. “The moment,” said the elder Adams, “the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.”

Through a combination of forceful rhetoric and unrelenting adherence to his views, Field effectively used his dissents to promulgate notions of “substantive due process” in the realm of economic rights—notions that would gradually gain credence among his brethren and be recognized decades later by a majority of the Court. Therefore, in assessing Field's influence on the Court's jurisprudence during this period, it is instructive to note not only his majority opinions and concurrences, but also the opinions and dissents he issued while riding circuit in his role as designated justice for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

A classic example is his statement in the Ninth Circuit case of San Mateo v. Southern Pacific R.R. Co. (1882), in which the court ruled unconstitutional under the equal protection and due process clauses a tax the state of California imposed on its railroads. Despite the lack of clear Supreme Court precedent supporting such a result, Field held that the Fourteenth Amendment's protection of “persons” should be interpreted to include the protection of corporations and corporate property. He observed, “It would be a most singular result if a constitutional provision intended for the protection of every person should cease to exert such protection the moment the person becomes a member of a corporation.” Field's contributions to “Ninth Circuit law” concerning the Fourteenth Amendment apparently found a sympathetic ear with his colleagues; by the time a similar challenge reached the U.S. Supreme Court a few years later, in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co. (1886), the Court summarily noted in dictum that the Fourteenth Amendment's protection of “persons” applied to corporations as well as individuals.

Field's other notable opinions during this period were Pennoyer v. Neff (1878), in which he spoke for an 8–1 majority in a landmark decision delineating the constitutional and procedural bases under the Fourteenth Amendment for a state's exercise of personal jurisdiction over a noncitizen, nonresident defendant who is not physically present in the state at the time of service; and Mugler v. Kansas (1887), in which he dissented from the majority decision upholding a Kansas law that forbade the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquor in the state as a valid exercise of state police power to protect public health and morals.

Finally, full consideration of Field's evolving judicial philosophy during this era needs some mention of his ongoing political interests, activities, relationships, and even possible aspirations to elective office. He counted among his prestigious friends well-known figures such as Leland Stanford and Collis P. Huntington, and rumors about Field's prospects as a presidential candidate continued to percolate throughout the 1870s and much of the 1880s. When a special commission was appointed in 1877 to resolve a bitter dispute over electoral votes in the presidential election of 1876, Field was one of five members of the Court chosen to serve. After heated partisan deliberations, the commission ruled that Republican Rutherford B. Hayes had won the electoral count by one vote. Field showed his indignation at the result and his support for the Democratic cause by absenting himself from Hayes's inauguration ceremonies. Still, at the Democratic Convention of 1880, Field received a mere sixty-five votes on the first ballot. Four years later, at the 1884 Demo-cratic state convention in California, Field's adopted home state overwhelmingly refused to support his candidacy, and his name was not proposed at all at that year's national convention. By the late 1880s, as Field reached his early seventies, he abandoned all serious presidential aspirations and turned instead to the further solidification of his influence on the Court and to his hopes of someday becoming chief justice.

Field's last ten years on the Court were marked by high drama, great disappointment with respect to personal ambitions, but ultimately the tremendous satisfaction of seeing many of his maverick conservative judicial views gain ascendancy. In 1888 Field's longtime hope of becoming chief justice was dashed when President Grover Cleveland instead chose Melville W. Fuller to fill the vacancy created by the death of Morrison R. Waite. Field apparently regarded Cleveland's rejection of him as a great personal insult and never forgave him for the slight.

That same year, while serving as Ninth Circuit judge in California, Field became embroiled in a bizarre personal feud with litigants in his courtroom that nearly cost him his life. The complicated imbroglio began when David S. Terry, former chief justice of the California Supreme Court and an old enemy of Field's, appeared in Field's court with his wife, Sarah Hill, in a dispute concerning an alleged secret marriage contract between Hill and the late William Sharon. In response to several comments made in open court by Field about Hill's character, Terry and Hill noisily objected, and Field promptly held them in contempt and sentenced them to jail. As a result, Terry waged a bitter vendetta against Field, and Field was advised not to resume his circuit court duties in California.

In 1889 Field did return to California, accompanied by a bodyguard, Deputy Marshal David Neagle. By chance, Field and Neagle encountered Terry and Hill in a railway station restaurant. When Terry lunged at Field, Neagle drew a gun in his defense and shot Terry to death. In the ensuing state criminal proceedings against Neagle, the federal circuit court issued a writ of habeas corpus, which was in turn challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court (sitting without Field) upheld the writ as a proper exercise of federal power in In re Neagle (1890), on the grounds that the attorney general's order to Neagle to protect Field was “a law of the United States.” Ironically, despite its odd and idiosyncratic factual underpinnings, the case remains a leading precedent concerning the scope of federal executive and judicial powers.

In his waning years on the Fuller Court, Field began to see that his decades-old defenses of private property rights and other conservative ideologies were, with increasing frequency, no longer minority viewpoints. Field's nephew, Justice David J. Brewer, appointed in 1890 by President Benjamin Harrison, shared many of Field's beliefs with respect to economic concerns and appeared ready to carry those beliefs into the next century's jurisprudence. In Field's view, much remained to be accomplished; in one of his final opinions, a concurrence in the Court's decision to strike down the federal income tax in Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co. (1895), Field warned:

If the provisions of the Constitution can be set aside by an act of Congress, where is the course of usurpation to end? The present assault on capital is but the beginning. It will be but the stepping-stone to others, larger and more sweeping, till our political contests will become a war of the poor against the rich—a war constantly growing in intensity and bitterness.

By 1896 Field's health was frail, and his inability to fulfill his judicial duties was becoming apparent to his colleagues. According to Charles Evans Hughes, various justices thought that Field would surely be encouraged to retire if he were reminded of his own role in persuading the aging Justice Grier to retire some twenty-six years earlier:

Justice Harlan was deputed to make the suggestion. He went over to Justice Field, who was sitting alone on a settee in the robing room apparently oblivious of his surroundings, and after arousing him gradually approached the question, asking if he did not recall how anxious the Court had become with respect to Justice Grier's condition and the feeling of the other Justices that in his own interest and in that of the Court he should give up his work. Justice Harlan asked if Justice Field did not remember what had been said to Justice Grier on that occasion. The old man listened, gradually became alert and finally, with his eyes blazing with the old fire of youth, he burst out: “Yes! And a dirtier's day work I never did in my life!” That was the end of that effort of the brethren of the Court to induce Justice Field's retirement; he did resign not long after.

In fact, Field's lingering last months on the Court were undoubtedly prolonged by his determination to break the record of thirty-four-plus years of service set by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835. By early 1897 it was clear that he would, so Field announced that his resignation would take effect on December 1. On that date, Field retired after a total of thirty-four years, eight months, and twenty days—a record that has since been surpassed only by Justice William O. Douglas.

Field died on April 9, 1899, in Washington, D.C. Perhaps the most fitting epitaph for his irascible spirit, fervently held convictions, and lifetime of public service can be found in his own words, written in his last year on the Court:

Timidity, hesitation and cowardice in any public officer excite and deserve only contempt, but infinitely more in a judge than in any other, because he is appointed to discharge a public trust of the most sacred character. To decide against his conviction of the law or judgment as to the evidence, whether moved by prejudice, or passion, or the clamor of the crowd, is to assent to a robbery as infamous in morals and as deserving of punishment as that of the highwayman or the burglar; and to hesitate or refuse to act when duty calls is hardly less the subject of just reproach.


The writings of Justice Stephen Field include the following: Personal Reminiscences of Early Days in California with Other Sketches (1893); two retrospectives on the work of the Court, “The Supreme Court of the United States, Centennial Celebration of the Organization of the Federal Judiciary,” 134 U.S. 729 (1890); and “The Centenary of the Supreme Court of the United States,” American Law Review 24 (1890): 351; and “The Late Chief Justice Chase,” Overland Monthly 11 (October 1873): 305. By far the most informative of the four works is the first, Field's relatively informal recollections of his early life and work; the others are more carefully tailored and staid presentations of his opinions and judicial perspectives.

Carl Brent Swisher, Stephen J. Field: Craftsman of the Law (1930), was for many years considered to be the definitive study of Field's life; it should now be supplemented by Paul Kens, Justice Stephen Field: Shaping Liberty from the Gold Rush to the Gilded Age (1997).

Field's judicial philosophy, particularly as a proponent of laissez-faire and other conservative economic ideologies, is discussed at great length in the following works: Robert Goedecke, “Justice Field and Inherent Rights,” Review of Politics 27 (1965): 198; Howard J. Graham, “Justice Field and the Fourteenth Amendment,” Yale Law Journal 52 (1943): 851; William C. Jones, “Justice Field's Opinions on Constitutional Law,” California Law Review 5 (1917): 108; Robert G. McCloskey, American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise (1951); Charles W. McCurdy, “Justice Field and the Jurisprudence of Government-Business Relations; Some Parameters of Laissez-Faire Constitutionalism, 1863–1897,” Journal of American History 61 (1975): 970; and Wallace Mendelson, “Mr. Justice Field and Laissez-Faire,” Virginia Law Review 36 (1950): 45.

Noteworthy Opinions

Cummings v. Missouri, 71 U.S. 277 (1867) (Test Oath Cases)

Ex parte Garland, 71 U.S. 333 (1867) (Test Oath Cases)

Second Legal Tender Cases (Knox v. Lee and Parker v. Davis), 79 U.S. 457 (1871) (Dissent)

Low v. Austin, 80 U.S. 29 (1872)

Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. 335 (1872)

Slaughterhouse Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1873) (Dissent)

Bartemeyer v. Iowa, 85 U.S. 129 (1874)

Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113 (1876) (Dissent)

Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714 (1878)

Sinking Fund Cases, 99 U.S. 700 (1879) (Dissent)

Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303 (1880) (Dissent)

Ex parte Virginia, 100 U.S. 339 (1880) (Dissent)

Ex parte Siebold, 100 U.S. 371 (1880) (Dissent)

Mugler v. Kansas, 123 U.S. 623 (1887) (Dissent)

Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co., 158 U.S. 601 (1895)


Document Citation
Field, Stephen Johnson, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 183 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18166-979216
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