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Iredell, James

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Birth: October 5, 1751, Lewes, England.

Education: Educated in England; read law under Samuel Johnston of North Carolina; licensed to practice, 1770–1771.

Official Positions: Comptroller of customs, Edenton, North Carolina, 1768–1774; collector of customs, Port of North Carolina, 1774–1776; judge, Superior Court of North Carolina, 1778; attorney general, North Carolina, 1779–1781; member, North Carolina Council of State, 1787; delegate, North Carolina convention for ratification of federal Constitution, 1788.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated associate justice by President George Washington, February 9, 1790; confirmed by the Senate, February 10, 1790, by a voice vote; took judicial oath May 12, 1790; served until October 20, 1799; replaced by Alfred Moore, nominated by President John Adams.

Death: October 20, 1799, Edenton, North Carolina.

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James Iredell
Noteworthy Opinions

James Iredell

James Iredell had gained a reputation as a prominent North Carolina Federalist prior to his Supreme Court appointment in 1790. Although he began his career as an official of the colonial government—he served as collector of customs in Edenton and, after studying law, was appointed deputy king's attorney—he wrote several tracts during the 1770s that established him as sympathetic to the Revolutionary cause.

During the Revolutionary War, Iredell served as a member of a committee charged with reviewing state statutes (1776). He also served as a superior court judge and as state attorney general. Returning to private practice, Iredell was able to give vent to his strongly held opinions concerning the fundamental nature of constitutional law and the importance of judicial review. In his Instructions to Chowan County Representatives (1783), he argued that fixed salaries for judges were necessary, for “otherwise they cannot be truly independent, which is a point of the utmost moment in a Republic where the Law is superior to any or all the Individuals, and the Constitution superior even to the Legislature, and of which the Judges are the guardians and protectors.” As an attorney in the case of Bayard v. Singleton (1787), he successfully argued that a state confiscation act violated the North Carolina Constitution because it denied a jury trial to litigants challenging the confiscation. Iredell's efforts in favor of adoption of the U.S. Constitution during North Carolina's ratifying conventions of 1788 and 1789 brought him to the attention of President George Washington, who named him to the Supreme Court in 1790.

As a justice, Iredell proved himself to be conscientious and careful. His opinions, in which he usually raised and answered the arguments of the parties in methodical fashion, often took a tack independent of his brethren. He was sensitive to the impact that the Court's decisions might have in the larger world, and he frequently expressed his reluctance to decide important or constitutional questions unnecessarily, although he was quite willing to engage in extraneous discussions that would now be termed dicta. His primary concerns, as revealed in his opinions, were the principles of separation of powers and judicial review and, perhaps most important, his concern for the interests of the states vis-à-vis the federal government.

Early in his career on the Court, Iredell had the opportunity to act on his beliefs in separation of powers and judicial review of legislation. In 1792 Congress passed the Invalid Pensions Act, assigning to the federal circuit courts the task of determining whether veterans who claimed to have been injured in the Revolutionary War were eligible for pensions. The act made the circuit courts' determinations subject to review by the secretary of war. Shortly after the act's passage, circuit courts around the country, which at that time were composed of one or two Supreme Court justices and the local district judge, confronted the statute, and all found it defective.

Iredell, sitting on the circuit court for the district of North Carolina, and district judge John Sitgreaves sent a letter to President Washington setting out their views on the statute. They had no case before them, so the letter amounted to an advisory opinion. By the terms of the Constitution, they said, each department—legislative, judicial, and executive—must remain separate. Because the act authorized the secretary of war to review a judicial decision, it in effect set up an arm of the executive branch as an appellate court—without investing the secretary of war with life tenure, as required by Article III. The act, therefore, subjected the court's decision to “a mode of revision which we consider to be unwarranted by the Constitution.” Essentially, the judges were expressing their conclusion that the act was unconstitutional because it violated the guarantee of separation of powers.

An even clearer statement of Iredell's belief in judicial review of legislation came in Calder v. Bull (1798), the first case in which the Supreme Court confronted the meaning of the constitutional prohibition against ex post facto laws. Although he agreed with the rest of the justices that the Connecticut law at issue was not an ex post facto law because it was civil rather than criminal in nature, Iredell observed that if any federal or state act violated a constitutional provision, it was “unquestionably void”—adding that, “as the authority to declare it void is of a delicate and awful nature, the Court will never resort to that authority, but in a clear and urgent case.”

Undoubtedly, Iredell's most famous opinion is his dissent in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793)—the case that precipitated the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution, which bars federal courts from hearing suits brought by individuals against states other than their own. Chisholm was a suit brought by citizens of South Carolina against Georgia for nonpayment of a debt contracted during the Revolution. Georgia, claiming sovereign immunity, refused to enter an appearance, and the plaintiffs moved for a default judgment. In separate opinions issued in February 1793, four of the five justices then on the Court found no constitutional barrier to the suit; on the contrary, they held that suits against states were authorized by Article III, Section 2, which conferred federal jurisdiction over suits “between a state and citizens of another state.” Iredell alone dissented.

Having first encountered the case in 1791 while sitting on the circuit court for the district of Georgia—where he dismissed the suit on the ground that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction, but implied that it might be allowable in the Supreme Court—Iredell had had ample time to formulate his views. He presented the question in the narrowest possible terms: would an action of assumpsit (an action for damages for the nonperformance of an oral or written contract) lie against a state? Vehemently rejecting the plaintiffs' suggestion that judicial authority could be derived directly from the Constitution, without the benefit of any enabling legislation, Iredell turned to the Judiciary Act of 1789 for clarification. The fourteenth section of that act, he noted, authorized the issuance of all writs “agreeable to the principles and usages of law.” The “law” referred to, he concluded, could only be “the common law”—that is, the law “as it existed in England (unaltered by any statute) at the time of the first settlement of the country.” Iredell proceeded to examine the common law of England regarding suits against the Crown, explaining that “every State in the Union in every instance where its sovereignty has not been delegated to the United States, I consider to be as compleatly sovereign, as the United States are in respect to the powers surrendered.”

Iredell then embarked on a lengthy disquisition on English case law, which led him to the conclusion that the only method of proceeding against the king in the case of debt was by petition and was dependent on his consent. By analogy, the only remedy against a state in the case of debt was by petition to the legislature. Iredell went on to reject the argument that a state could be analogized to a corporation. As he had done earlier in his opinion when rejecting the idea that judicial power could be derived directly from the Constitution, Iredell set out a sharp division between the spheres of the courts and the legislature: to apply the law of corporations to the very different situation of states would be tantamount to engaging in lawmaking, “when the application of law, not the making of it, is the sole province of the Court.”

In conclusion, Iredell observed that his decision made it unnecessary for him to consider whether the Constitution itself authorized federal courts to entertain suits against states, noting that “it is of extreme moment that no Judge should rashly commit himself upon important questions, which it is unnecessary for him to decide.” He continued, however, that because so much had been said on the subject of the Constitution, “It may not be improper to intimate that my present opinion is strongly against any construction of it, which will admit, under any circumstances a compulsive suit against a State for the recovery of money.” His last sentence rang ominously: “I pray to God, that if the Attorney General's doctrine, as to the law, be established by the judgment of this Court, all the good he predicts from it may take place, and none of the evils with which, I have the concern to say, it appears to me to be pregnant.”

Iredell's opinion, as it turned out, was more in keeping with the mood of the country than were those of his fellow justices. The day after the opinions came down, a constitutional amendment to overturn the result was introduced in the House of Representatives, and a similar amendment passed both houses of Congress the following year. By 1795 the requisite number of states had ratified the amendment, which, because of bureaucratic errors, was not made official until 1798.

Some commentators, such as Griffith J. McRee—the first editor of Iredell's letters—have seen in Iredell's dissent the germ of what later became known as the doctrine of states' rights. Others, noting Iredell's strong Federalist record and judicial support for unpopular displays of Federalist might such as the Alien and Sedition Acts, have disputed this view. Jeff B. Fordham has written that what Iredell did “was simply to state a legal opinion instead of writing a political tract.” Unwilling to embark on new and uncharted territory when it “was of no great importance to the effectuation of the purposes of the union,” Iredell chose the road of caution. Christopher T. Graebe has offered a more instrumentalist analysis of Iredell's dissent, pointing out that a number of its legal arguments do not hold water: “Iredell knew the result that the country needed in light of growing Southern discontent with federal power, and he found the requisite law to achieve his political goal.” Certainly, Iredell was influenced by an awareness of the political difficulties inherent in the majority's decision. In a draft of part of the opinion that Iredell ultimately omitted, he considered the impossibility of enforcing a judgment against an unwilling state. Turning on its head the adage that “where there is a right, there is a remedy,” Iredell suggested that “where no remedy can be found, there is no right.”

Iredell again displayed his concern for state prerogatives in Ware v. Hylton (1796), another politically charged case. The suit involved a debt contracted before the Revolution; the debtor was a Virginian, the creditor British. In 1777 Virginia passed a sequestration act, allowing citizens who owed money to British creditors to discharge their debts by paying them to the state. In 1780 the debtor took advantage of this statute to discharge part of the debt, but when peace was negotiated in 1783, the treaty provided that creditors on either side should “meet with no lawful impediment” to the recovery of debts contracted before the Revolution. Relying on the treaty, the British creditor sued the Virginia debtor for recovery of the debt—including that part of the debt that had been paid to the state.

Four justices, in separate opinions, held that the 1783 treaty nullified the Virginia sequestration act. As in Chisholm, Iredell was the only one to disagree. Having decided the case in the circuit court, he took no actual part in the decision, but he felt strongly enough about the case that he read his circuit court opinion from the bench. In Iredell' s view, the provision of the treaty at issue was executory, requiring legislative action to give it effect. Once the Constitution was ratified, the supremacy clause served to repeal the Virginia sequestration act, but “everything done under the act while in existence, so far as private rights at least were concerned,” was unaffected by the repeal. The defendant, therefore, was no longer a “debtor” as to that part of the debt paid to the state, and the words of the treaty could not apply. This reasoning ignored the political reality that the treaty was expressly directed at allowing British creditors to surmount legal obstacles such as state sequestration and confiscation acts. But Iredell—who appeared to recognize the shaky legal ground on which his argument rested—chose to defer to another political reality, namely, the hostility of the states to this provision of the treaty.

Although Iredell's reading of the law in these cases was influenced by pragmatism, he was far from unprincipled. If he can be said to have defended states' rights, he did so only when no great harm would result to the interests of the federal government. Indeed, given his generally staunch defense of federal power—most evident in the charges he delivered to grand juries while riding circuit—it is likely that his dissents were motivated by a desire to preserve the Union by mollifying those states, including his own, whose fierce independence threatened to tear it apart.


W. P. Whichard has written the only modern biography, Justice James Iredell (2000). A brief but informative biographical sketch of Iredell is Fred L. Israel, “James Iredell,” in Friedman and Israel, Justices, vol. 1, 121. Thoughtful analysis of Iredell's opinion in Chisholm v. Georgia can be found in Christopher T. Graebe, “The Federalism of James Iredell in Historical Context,” North Carolina Law Review 69 (1990): 251; and, to a lesser extent, in Jeff B. Fordham, “Iredell's Dissent in Chisholm v. Georgia,” North Carolina Historical Review 8 (1931): 155. See also William R. Casto, “James Iredell and the American Origins of Judicial Review,” Connecticut Law Review 27 (1995): 329; and C.F.I. Hickox et al., “James Iredell and the English Origins of American Judicial Review,” Anglo-American Law Review 23 (1994): 100.

The bulk of Iredell's papers are in the Charles B. Johnson collection at the North Carolina State Department of Archives and History, and others are deposited at Duke University. Both collections contain some items relating to Iredell's judicial career. Griffith J. McRee, Life and Correspondence of James Iredell (1857, 1949), is dated and somewhat unreliable but contains transcripts of a number of letters that have since been lost. Many documents and letters relating to Iredell's tenure on the Supreme Court can be found in the volumes of Maeva Marcus, ed., The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789–1800 (1985–). For information on Iredell's early life, see Don Higginbotham, ed., The Papers of James Iredell (1976).

Noteworthy Opinions

Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. 419 (1793) (Dissent)

Ware v. Hylton, 3 U.S. 171 (1796) (Dissent)

Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. 386 (1798)


Document Citation
Iredell, James, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 280 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18167-979295
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