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Johnson, Thomas

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Birth: November 4, 1732, Calvert County, Maryland.

Education: Educated at home; studied law under Stephen Bordley; admitted to the bar, 1760.

Official Positions: Delegate, Maryland Provincial Assembly, 1762; delegate, Committee of Correspondence, 1774; member, Continental Congress, 1774–1777; delegate, first Maryland Constitutional Convention, 1776; first governor of Maryland, 1777–1779; member, Maryland House of Delegates, 1780, 1786, 1787; member, Maryland convention for ratification of the federal Constitution, 1788; chief judge, General Court of Maryland, 1790–1791; member, Board of Commissioners of the Federal City, 1791–1794.

Supreme Court Service: Recess appointment as associate justice by President George Washington, August 5, 1791, to replace John Rutledge, who had resigned; nominated November 1, 1791; confirmed by the Senate, November 7, 1791, by a voice vote; took judicial oath August 6, 1792; resigned January 16, 1793; replaced by William Paterson, nominated by President Washington.

Death: October 26, 1819, Frederick, Maryland.

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Opinions Written
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Thomas Johnson
Noteworthy Opinions

Thomas Johnson

Thomas Johnson's most significant contributions to the development of the new American nation would not necessarily include his ser-vice on the bench of the Supreme Court, although in his very brief tenure he participated in a number of interesting cases. Instead, he may be better known for his part in the success of the American Revolution and in the establishment of the capital of the United States in the District of Columbia. Johnson began to pursue public office soon after his admission to the bar. He served in the lower house of the Maryland Assembly from 1762 to 1773. Because of his ardent support of American rights, Johnson was elected to the Annapolis Committee of Correspondence and to the First and Second Continental Congresses. He returned to Maryland as commander of its militia; was elected to three one-year terms (1777–1779) as the first governor of the state; became a member of the Maryland House of Delegates (1780, 1786, 1787), as well as of the state's convention to ratify the federal constitution. In 1790 the governor appointed him chief judge of the Maryland General Court. Johnson resigned from this position to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court.

Initially reluctant to serve on the Court because of the duty of riding circuit imposed on the justices by the Judiciary Act of 1789, Johnson overcame his reservations and accepted the temporary commission sent to him by President Washington on August 5, 1791. The Senate, out of session in August, confirmed him on November 7 to a permanent position. Johnson, however, missed the February 1792 term of Court and did not take his seat on the Supreme Court until August 6, 1792. His entire career on the federal bench consisted of holding a circuit court in Virginia in the fall of 1791, attending the Supreme Court in August 1792, and riding the southern circuit in the fall of 1792. (While holding the court in South Carolina, however, Johnson indicated his belief in judicial review by refusing to allow the court to proceed under the Invalid Pensions Act passed by Congress in 1792.) After that experience, Johnson decided the burdens of circuit riding were too much for him and resigned his position on January 16, 1793. He retired to his estate in Frederick, Maryland.

Despite the brevity of his tenure on the Supreme Court, Johnson had the opportunity to examine two important issues. In Hayburn's Case (1792), the Court heard argument as to whether the attorney general had authority ex officio, without the specific permission of the president, to move for a mandamus to the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Pennsylvania requiring it to hear the petition of William Hayburn. The Court divided equally on the question, so the motion was denied. Johnson joined those members of the Court who thought the attorney general should be permitted to proceed on his own. Had his views prevailed, elements of federal procedure might look very different today.

Johnson also participated in the initial stage of Georgia v. Brailsford (1792). The state of Georgia asked the Supreme Court to issue an injunction to prevent Samuel Brailsford, a British subject, from receiving the money owed him as a result of a judgment in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Georgia. Georgia believed the money belonged to it by virtue of a state statute authorizing sequestration of British property during the Revolution. If an injunction were granted, all the parties' interests could be adjudicated in the Supreme Court. The majority voted in favor of issuing the injunction; Johnson, in dissent, stated that Georgia was not entitled to an injunction, because her “right to the debt in question …. may be enforced at common law.” Georgia eventually lost the battle with Brailsford in a jury trial in the Supreme Court (1794), in which the justices unanimously indicated, in a charge to the jury, that they thought that the peace treaty ending the Revolutionary War superseded a state seques-tration statute. When this verdict was rendered, Johnson had already left the Court.


Letters pertaining to Thomas Johnson's Supreme Court service are published in the volumes of Maeva Marcus, ed., The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789–1800 (1985–). Edward S. Delaplaine's The Life of Thomas Johnson (1927) remains the only full-length biography. A short informative essay about Johnson, written by Herbert Alan Johnson, appears in Friedman and Israel, Justices, vol. 1, 149.

Noteworthy Opinions

Georgia v. Brailsford, 2 U.S. 402 (1792) (Dissent)


Document Citation
Johnson, Thomas, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 301 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18167-979319
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