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Cranch, William

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Significance: Cranch's reports covered Supreme Court decisions exclusively. Cranch believed the stability of U.S. national jurisprudence depended on keeping a complete record of Supreme Court cases.


The position of reporter of decisions had informal beginnings. The first two reporters, Alexander J. Dallas and Cranch, were self-appointed. Each was motivated by profit and the desire to perform a public service. Cranch was living in Washington, D.C., when one of his real estate ventures collapsed and ruined him. President John Adams, Cranch's uncle, appointed him assistant judge of the newly created District of Columbia circuit court in 1801. Cranch escaped the 1802 Republican purge of federal judgeships, became chief judge in 1805, and served on the bench for fifty-four years. When the Supreme Court moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., Cranch began reporting its decisions. Cranch emphasized that written reports provided attorneys and judges with accurate records, which acted as U.S. case precedent and thereby reduced arbitrary decision making. Law reporting, a tedious task, was not a particularly lucrative private venture. Assisted by the new trend of justices to provide opinion notes in important cases, Cranch was able to produce reports that were praised for their clarity and accuracy. His later works were criticized as being inaccurate and untimely. Plagued by production costs, the quadrupling of the number of cases to report, and the fact that most of the cases addressed topics of little interest to most prospective purchasers, Cranch fell behind schedule in publishing his reports.