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Rutledge, John

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Birth: September 1739, Charleston, South Carolina.

Education: Privately tutored; studied law at the Middle Temple in England; called to the English bar February 9, 1760.

Official Positions: Member, South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, 1761–1776; South Carolina attorney general pro tem, 1764–1765; delegate, Stamp Act Congress, 1765; member, Continental Congress, 1774–1776, 1782–1783; president, South Carolina General Assembly, 1776–1778; governor, South Carolina, 1779–1782; judge of the Court of Chancery of South Carolina, 1784–1791; chief, South Carolina delegation to the Constitutional Convention, 1787; member, South Carolina convention to ratify U.S. Constitution, 1788; chief justice, South Carolina Court of Common Pleas, 1791–1795; member, South Carolina Assembly, 1798–1799.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated associate justice by President George Washington, September 24, 1789; confirmed by the Senate, September 26, 1789, by a voice vote; took judicial oath February 15, 1790; resigned March 5, 1791; replaced by Thomas Johnson, nominated by President Washington. Recess appointment as chief justice by President Washington, July 1, 1795; took judicial oath August 12, 1795; appointment rejected by the Senate, 14–10, December 15, 1795; service terminated December 15, 1795.

Death: July 18, 1800, Charleston, South Carolina.

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John Rutledge
Noteworthy Opinions

John Rutledge

John Rutledge dominated South Carolina politics in the 1770s and 1780s, serving as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses and as the state's chief executive during the Revolutionary War. Rutledge was also elected to the Confederation Congress in 1782, was appointed a judge of the state court of chancery in 1784, and represented the state at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

In 1789 President George Washington nominated Rutledge as one of the first six justices of the newly established U.S. Supreme Court. Rutledge accepted the commission and rode on circuit, but he did not attend any meetings of the Court before resigning in March 1791 to become chief justice of the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas. After four years of service as a state judge, Rutledge apparently had second thoughts about the desirability of a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Anticipating Chief Justice John Jay's resignation, Rutledge wrote to President Washington in June 1795, offering to replace him. Washington accepted with alacrity and issued a temporary commission, subject to the acceptance of the nomination by the Senate when it reconvened in December.

Chief Justice Rutledge participated in two cases during the August 1795 term of the Supreme Court, United States v. Peters and Talbot v. Janson. Both cases involved libels against ships accused of violating the Neutrality Act of 1794, which prohibited the arming of ships in American ports and barred American citizens from serving on foreign privateers. Rutledge announced the opinion in Peters, which involved the seizure on the high seas of an American schooner, the William Lindsey, by an armed corvette, the Cassius, commanded by a U.S. citizen acting under the authority of a French commission. The Lindsey, which had been carrying a cargo of British goods, had been taken before a French prize court in Port-de-Paix, Haiti. Because the Cassius was the property of the French government, the Court held, only a French tribunal had jurisdiction to decide the dispute.

Talbot v. Janson involved two ships, apparently acting in concert, that had taken as prize a Dutch brigantine. Although the captains of both ships were American by origin, both claimed to have adopted French citizenship. They also claimed that their ships were French, but the owner of the Dutch brigantine alleged that the true owners were Americans. The Court was unanimous in holding that the Dutch shipowner was entitled to restitution and damages, although each justice wrote a separate opinion. Rutledge, in a terse, three-paragraph opinion, eschewed any discussion of the vexing question of whether an American citizen could unilaterally expatriate himself. He based his decision on the grounds that one vessel had been illegally fitted out in the United States and that the other was actually American property. Rutledge did not mention the Neutrality Act but held that the capture violated the law of nations and the American treaty with Holland.

These two brief opinions are Rutledge's legacy as chief justice. Shortly after his nomination for the post (but probably before he had received word of it) he engaged in some intemperate criticism of the then-controversial Jay Treaty of 1794. Opposition to his appointment arose immediately, and when the Senate reconvened in December, it voted, 14–10, to reject his nomination.


No reliable full-length biography of John Rutledge exists. The best sources for treatment of his Supreme Court career are Leon Friedman, “John Rutledge,” in Justices, vol. 1, 33; and the volumes of Maeva Marcus, ed., The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789–1800 (1985–).

Noteworthy Opinions

United States v. Peters, 3 U.S. 121 (1795)

Talbot v. Janson, 3 U.S. 133 (1795)


Document Citation
Rutledge, John, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 440 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18169-979495
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