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Peters, Richard

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Significance: A challenge to Peters's attempt to edit and sell Supreme Court reports to the public resulted in a suit and ultimately a Court ruling that Court opinions were in the public domain.


Peters was the son of a well-known Revolutionary patriot, Pennsylvania legislator, and judge. He was appointed the fourth Supreme Court reporter when his predecessor in the office, Henry Wheaton, became minister to Denmark. Peters held the position for fifteen years, and sixteen volumes of the Supreme Court Reports appeared bearing his name. He was a Whig, however, and although he got along well enough with Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, a Democrat, he fell afoul of some of the new Democratic justices. There were several allegations and complaints about his work, and in 1843, four justices fired him when Taney and two other justices were absent. An outraged Justice Joseph Story wrote: “For myself I can only say that I know of no reason for Mr. P.'s removal and I think it a most ill advised and rash step, which will bring the Court into odium as having been governed by peculiar motives.” One of the cases Peters reported involved himself. Wheaton v. Peters (1834) arose because Peters condensed the Court's reports, including some of Supreme Court reporter Henry Wheaton's, and sold them to the public at a greatly reduced price. Wheaton sued on the grounds that Peters was undercutting his market. The Court decided in Peters's favor, however, ruling that its opinions were in the public domain and only a reporter's comments and notes were subject to copyright.