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Catron, John

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Significance: While on the Supreme Court, Catron guarded the rights of states and opposed the accumulation of wealth and power within institutions and corporations. During the Civil War, he worked to preserve the union at great cost to himself.


Though little is known of Catron's early years, his background probably was marked by poverty. After serving under General Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812, he was admitted to the bar in 1815 in Tennessee. While practicing and serving as a prosecuting attorney in a regional circuit court, he became knowledgeable in issues of land litigation. Because of his reputation, he was appointed to the Tennessee supreme court (then called the Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals) in 1818. He became its chief justice in 1831, a post he retained until the abolition of the court in 1834. After he returned to private practice, Catron became more active on the political front, emerging as one of the leading supporters of Jackson's campaign for president. Like Jackson, Catron denounced many practices of the Bank of the United States, especially its loan practices and alleged usury. During the 1836 presidential election, he successfully managed Martin Van Buren's campaign in Tennessee. In recognition of his party loyalty, Jackson nominated him to the Supreme Court on March 3, 1837, the last day of his administration. Catron's advocacy of states’ rights influenced many of his Court decisions. In License Cases (1847), for example, he ruled that the Constitution's provision for federal supervision of interstate commerce did not exclude a state's right to enforce state regulations. In Cooley v. Board of Wardens of the Port of Philadelphia (1852), he argued that states could legislate even if regulations were incidentally applied to foreign or interstate commerce. Corporate power was another area important to Catron. In Marshall v. Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Co. (1853), for example, he rejected the notion that all stockholders of a corporation could be regarded as a collective citizen and, instead, held that its officers should be responsible for the acts of a corporation. Catron was also involved in judicial issues arising from the apprehension of fugitive slaves. In Scott v. Sandford (1857), Catron held that Dred Scott was a slave when he filed the suit and a slave when the case was decided. In the crucial period preceding succession, Catron believed that the maintenance of federal judicial power in the disaffected states was of historic importance. In St. Louis, he denounced secessionists as rebels and, as a result of his strong Unionist stand, was forced to leave his home in Nashville and his property was confiscated. He died shortly after the Confederate surrender assured the preservation of the Union to which he was devoted.



Further Reading

  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Cushman, Clare, ed. The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789-1995. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1995.
  • Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
  • Huebner, Timothy S. The Taney Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Lurie, Jonathan. The Chase Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.