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Cushing, William

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Significance: Cushing was the first appointee to the Supreme Court. Serving on the Court for almost twenty-one years, he was adept at disposing of cases quickly and tersely by focusing on one simple issue that could resolve each case.


After graduating from Harvard College in 1751, Cushing taught grammar school for one year in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Turning his interests to law, he began his own law practice in 1755. In 1760 he moved to Maine to become a probate judge and justice of the peace. Cushing returned to Massachusetts in 1771 and was subsequently chosen as a justice in the Massachusetts superior court. After the American Revolutionary War began, he was elected to the Massachusetts superior court of judicature, and in 1779 he was elevated to the position of chief justice to replace John Quincy Adams. In 1786 Cushing maintained order and respect for the law in western Massachusetts by handling the armed rebels in Shay's Rebellion. Cushing's experience with regional disorders made him a strong supporter of the Constitution. He served as the vice president of the Massachusetts state convention that ratified the Constitution in 1788, presiding over most of the proceedings because the president, John Hancock, was ill. On September 24, 1789, Cushing was nominated to the Supreme Court by President George Washington. He was confirmed by the Senate two days later. Serving more than twenty years on the Court, Cushing wrote only nineteen opinions. His opinions were brief, careful, and straightforward. Because of his previous experience with the early jurisprudence of the American states, Cushing was chosen to write the decisions on the property rights of colonists who had remained loyal to Great Britain during the Revolutionary War. In 1793 he concurred with the majority in the extremely unpopular decision of the Court in the Chisholm v. Georgia case, in which the Court upheld the rights of the citizens of one state to bring original suits in the Court against another state. Due to potential economic damage that might occur, this decision led to the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment in 1798. In 1796 Cushing demonstrated his support of the Federalist agenda in Ware v. Hylton. He voted with the majority in concluding that debts encumbered before the Revolutionary War were still valid and that treaties were the supreme law of the land. As a result, President Washington nominated Cushing as the successor to Chief Justice John Jay. Cushing was confirmed by the Senate but resigned after one week due to declining health. However, he kept his position on the bench as an associate justice. Cushing served on the Court the longest of any of the six original appointees, being the only one to serve under both Jay and Chief Justice John Marshall.