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Paterson, William

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Significance: While serving on the Supreme Court, Paterson participated in several important cases in American jurisprudence that established the Constitution as the law of the land.


Born in Ireland, Paterson is one of only six Supreme Court justices born in a foreign country. Paterson graduated from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) in 1763 and earned a graduate degree in 1766. He studied law under Richard Stockton and was admitted to the bar in 1769, establishing a practice in New Bromley, New Jersey. During the Revolutionary War, Paterson was an officer in the Somerset County Minutemen and also served as a member of the Council of Safety. In 1775 Paterson was selected as a delegate to the First Provincial Congress of New Jersey. He was elected to the State Constitutional Convention in 1776, where he helped draft the New Jersey constitution. He was named the first attorney general of New Jersey in 1776 and actively prosecuted Loyalists. In the Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia in 1787, Paterson represented New Jersey. He was the architect of the famous New Jersey plan, which supported the interests of the smaller states by calling for a federal legislature with equal representation for each state. The Virginia and New Jersey plans were consolidated to form the American legislative structure. In 1788 Paterson was elected by the New Jersey legislature to serve in the first U.S. Senate. He and his colleague, Oliver Ellsworth, drafted the Judiciary Act of 1789 that established the federal court system, a three-tiered system of courts, consisting of the Supreme Court, circuit courts, and district courts. In 1790 Paterson was elected governor and chancellor of New Jersey. On March 4, 1793, President George Washington appointed Paterson to the Supreme Court. He became well known for his decision in Van Horne's Lessee v. Dorrance (1795), a circuit court case, which helped to establish the nature of constitutional governments. Paterson's opinion in the Van Horne case served as a precedent in the Marbury v. Madison (1803) decision, one of the most significant Court decisions. Chief Justice John Marshall cited Paterson's Van Horne opinion in the Marbury decision, thus establishing the right of the judicial branch to review and void acts of the executive and legislative branches if the acts violate the Constitution. In 1796 Paterson wrote one of the separate majority opinions in Hylton v. United States. Paterson argued that a federal tax on carriages was legal because it was an indirect tax, not a direct tax. The sustaining of the carriage tax proved pivotal some one hundred years later when the Court declared the federal income tax was unconstitutional, eventually leading to the Sixteenth Amendment.