Significance: The first Jeffersonian appointed to the Supreme Court, Johnson resisted Chief Justice John Marshall's desire for unanimous decisions by the Court. His example established the custom of justices reading individual dissenting or concurring opinions as a regular practice of the Court.
Johnson graduated from Princeton with honors in 1790 and returned to Charleston, South Carolina, to study law with Federalist Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. He was admitted to the bar in 1793. From 1794 to 1798 he served three consecutive terms in the state House of Representatives as a Jeffersonian Republican. During his final term Johnson was speaker of the House. In 1798 the legislature elected Johnson to the court of common pleas, which was then South Carolina's highest court.
A Republican on the Court
When Thomas Jefferson took office as president of the United States in 1801, Federalist appointees opposed to his political principles staffed the entire federal judiciary. Jefferson was particularly displeased with the Court decisions written by Chief Justice John Marshall. Jefferson's first chance to appoint a Republican to the Court came in 1804 when an elderly and ill Federalist judge resigned. Jefferson nominated Johnson, believing him to be a staunch Republican whom he could trust to stand up to Marshall. In order to strengthen the Court's claim as the ultimate interpreter of the law and the Constitution, Marshall discouraged the justices from writing separate opinions. Marshall strove for unanimous decisions and delivered the opinion of the Court himself in most major cases. Johnson disliked this practice and produced his first published dissent in the 1807 case of Ex Parte Bollman and Swartwout when the majority granted a writ of habeas corpus to two accomplices of Aaron Burr who were accused of treason. The following year Johnson demonstrated his independence from Jefferson's influence in a circuit court decision, Gilchrist v. Collector of Charleston (1808). Johnson rescinded a presidential executive order, issued under the Embargo Act of 1807, which prevented a ship from leaving Charleston harbor, by ruling that the act did not authorize Jefferson's edict. A moderate Republican, Johnson agreed with Marshall on such fundamental constitutional questions as the need for a strong central government and an independent judiciary, but he hoped to achieve a more even balance between the federal and state governments. Although both men believed in the necessity of protecting property rights, Johnson was much less rigid regarding the preservation of the sanctity of private contracts and was more willing than Marshall to grant state legislatures leeway in areas of economic and social policy. Johnson feared excessive deference on the part of the Court toward moneyed interests and denounced the Court's use of the Constitution's contract clause to support speculators rather than legislatures. In Ogden v. Saunders (1827), Johnson convinced a majority of the Court that states had the power to write bankruptcy laws applying to future contracts without violating the contract clause. Marshall vigorously protested this decision in his only written dissent on a constitutional issue.
Opinions and Disagreements
Even when he agreed with a decision, Johnson insisted on presenting his own views. During the thirty years he served on the Court, Johnson wrote an overwhelming majority of concurring opinions (twenty-one of thirty-five) and nearly half of all dissenting opinions (thirty-four of seventy-four). His dissenting opinion in Osborn v. Bank of the United States (1824) acknowledged that the bank needed special protection but rejected the enormous expansion of federal jurisdiction that Marshall's decision permitted. Johnson's powerful sense of American nationalism permeated his concurring opinion in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), in which his interpretation of the power of Congress to act under the commerce clause of the Constitution was even broader than that of Marshall. Johnson strongly opposed Justice Joseph Story's attempts to establish a federal common law dealing with criminal matters. In United States v. Hudson and Goodwin (1812), Johnson persuaded the Court to follow his view, to the great disgust of Story, who pointedly ignored the decision when sitting as a circuit court justice. Johnson was less successful in preventing Story from expanding the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal government. As the years passed, Johnson found himself increasingly out of harmony with public opinion in his native state. Although himself a slaveholder and opposed to abolition, Johnson strongly supported black civil rights. When South Carolinians reacted hysterically, in 1823, to the discovery of a slave rebellion plotted by Denmark Vesey, Johnson publicly criticized the denial of due process to the slaves. In a circuit court decision that same year, Johnson invalidated South Carolina's Negro Seamen Act, which required that free black sailors be kept in prison while their ships were docked in the state. As defensiveness concerning slavery increased in the wake of the Vesey affair, South Carolina's intellectuals began to stress extreme states’ rights. To the fury of his neighbors, Johnson, in an 1832 circuit court decision, denounced the doctrine that states could nullify acts of the federal government. In 1834 Johnson moved to Philadelphia. Johnson's death in August, 1834, was unexpected. Having suffered for some time from an infection of his jaw, Johnson went to Brooklyn, New York, to undergo surgery. Anesthetics were not yet available. Half an hour after the completion of an extremely painful operation, he died; newspapers listed the cause as exhaustion. Always an independent thinker, Johnson's defense of legislative power irritated colleagues insistent on judicial supremacy. His strong support of the Constitution and the national government infuriated states’ rights theorists. He is best remembered for his insistence on the right to free expression that helped establish the Supreme Court tradition of publishing dissenting opinions.
- Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
- Clinton, Robert, Christopher Budzisz, and Peter Renstrom, eds. The Marshall Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, ABC-Clio, 2007.
- Ellis, Richard P. The Jeffersonian Crisis: Courts and Politics in the Young Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
- Friedman, Leon, and Fred Israel, eds. The Justices of the Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
- Morgan, Donald B. Justice William Johnson, the First Dissenter: The Career and Constitutional Philosophy of a Jeffersonian Judge. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1954.