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Blatchford, Samuel

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Significance: Known as a workhorse, Blatchford wrote 430 opinions in his eleven years on the Supreme Court. In an 1892 decision, he extended the interpretation of the Fifth Amendment by emphasizing that it prevented a person from giving evidence in any criminal case.


Blatchford graduated as class valedictorian from Columbia College in 1837. He began studying law in his father's New York office, but soon was asked to serve as the private secretary of New York governor William Seward. In 1842 Blatchford was admitted to the New York bar and practiced in New York City with his father for the next three years. Subsequently, he became a law partner with Seward, which contributed greatly to Blatchford's later success. In 1852 Blatchford began compiling reports of federal court decisions and ultimately published twenty-four volumes of previously uncollected decisions of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He also published Blatchford's and Howland's Reports (1855) of admiralty cases decided between 1827 and 1837 in the district court for the southern district of New York, as well as Blatchford's Prize Cases (1865), which covered prize cases in circuit and district courts of New York from 1861 to 1865. Between 1867 and 1872, Blatchford served as a federal district judge for the southern district of New York. He was then elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. After Roscoe Conkling and George F. Edmunds each declined invitations to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court, President Chester A. Arthur nominated Blatchford on March 13, 1882. Blatchford was easily confirmed in the Senate two weeks later. Being a judicial moderate, Blatchford usually supported the majority opinions of the Court, writing only two dissents out of his 430 opinions. Known as one of the hardest-working and most productive justices ever to sit on the Court bench, he also became known for his encouragement of younger members of the legal profession and for his kind, patient, courteous manner. In 1890 Blatchford was cast into the national spotlight when he wrote the pivotal opinion for Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway Co. v. Minnesota. Blatchford claimed that it was unconstitutional for a government-established commission to have the last word in whether railway rates were fair or not. He argued that it violated the railway's right to due process. However, less than two years later in Budd v. New York (1892), Blatchford ruled that the legislature could indeed set rates for businesses that affect the public interest. His contradictory decisions were highly criticized. However, he demonstrated his wisdom in Counselman v. Hitchcock (1892), when he broadly interpreted the Fifth Amendment's right against self-incrimination, giving individuals increased protection against federal authority.