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Jay, John

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Significance: As the first chief justice, Jay was responsible for establishing procedures, admitting practitioners, and organizing the Supreme Court's business. A strong nationalist in his constitutional views, he believed that the Court had judicial authority to hear cases against a state.


The son of a prominent New York City merchant, Jay was a member of colonial New York's social elite. Educated at King's College, later Columbia University (A. B., 1764), he was apprenticed to lawyer Benjamin Kissam, and admitted to practice in 1768. He was clerk to the New York-New Jersey Boundary Commission from 1769 to 1774. A leader of the conservative faction of New York patriots, he served in the First and Second Continental Congresses (1774 and 1775). Following New York's declaration of independence on July 9, 1776, Jay helped draft the first state constitution and was elected the first chief justice of New York, serving from 1777 to 1778. Reelected to the Continental Congress, he became president (1778-1779) and then minister to Spain (1779-1783) and a member of the Peace Commission (1779-1783). Jay was secretary for foreign affairs (1784-1789), and a coauthor of The Federalist (1788). An austere and dignified leader, Jay was particularly qualified to establish institutional forms and traditions that would well serve the Supreme Court. Admitting the first group of attorneys and counselors, he insisted upon the Court's making an independent judgment concerning their character and abilities. In Hayburn's Case (1792), the Court first enunciated principles of separation of powers and rejected requests that it issue advisory opinions; it repeated its objections to advisory opinions in the justices’ letter to President George Washington, declining to give such an opinion on the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793. In Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), the Court majority held that a state might be made a defendant in the Supreme Court in a contract claim brought by another state's citizen. Although Jay had modified the extreme nationalist position that he expressed in 1786 that states were mere administrative subdivisions of the national government he held that the Constitution vested supreme authority in the federal government, including judicial authority to hear cases against a state. This arose from the constitutive act of the people of the United States, expressed in their various state ratifying conventions. Jay also questioned the doctrine of sovereign immunity as applied to republican governments where citizens were equal to each other. Public outcry against Chisholm caused its reversal by the Eleventh Amendment, ratified in 1795 and proclaimed in effect in 1798. While on circuit in Richmond, Virginia, Jay held that the 1783 Peace Treaty with Great Britain (known as Jay's Treaty) guaranteed the collectibility of debts that Americans owed to British merchants when the American Revolution began. Under Jay's instruction to the jury, a verdict for the plaintiff upheld the terms of the treaty. After Jay's resignation, in Ware v. Hylton (1796), the Court sustained Jay's position that treaties were the supreme law of the land. While serving as minister to Britain (1794-1795) but still retaining his commission as chief justice, Jay was elected governor of New York. He resigned from the Court, and served as governor from 1795 to 1801. Renominated to serve as chief justice in November, 1800, he declined the appointment on January 2, 1801, and lived in virtual retirement until his death.



Further Reading

  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Casto, William R. The Supreme Court in the Early Republic: The Chief Justiceships of John Jay and Oliver Ellsworth. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
  • Goebel, Julius, Jr. Antecedents and Beginnings to 1801. Vol. 1 in History of the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
  • Harrington, Matthew P. Jay and Ellsworth, The First Courts: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2007.
  • Marcus, Maeva, et al., eds. The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800. 7 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985-    .
  • Monaghan, Frank. John Jay: Defender of Liberty Against Kings and Peoples. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1935.
  • Morris, Richard B. John Jay, the Nation, and the Court. Boston: Boston University Press, 1967.
  • Van Santvoord, George. George Van Santvoord's Sketch of John Jay: From Sketches of the Lives, Times and Judicial Services of the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: Green Bag Press, 2001.