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Rutledge, John

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Significance: Rutledge's criticisms of Jay's Treaty most likely caused the Senate to fail to confirm his nomination as chief justice of the United States.


Rutledge was a patriot whose nationalist loyalties contributed to his political demise. His father, Andrew Rutledge, came to South Carolina in 1720 via New York with a law degree from Trinity College, Dublin. He arrived in the southern colony and quickly became a member of the Episcopal Church, satisfying the law requiring all landowners to be Christian communicants. His marriage to a wealthy widow provided the family with financial resources and status. The younger Rutledge's early years, including a legal education at the Inns of Court, are replete with service to the Crown and Colony. He initially manifested Loyalist views and sought to prevent a break with the Crown. His legal education proved germane to his future conduct and opinions about how the colony and later, the state, should operate. Rutledge was one of South Carolina's more conservative delegates to the First and Second Continental Congresses. He helped draft South Carolina's constitution and was elected to its first general assembly. He was strongly nationalistic in expressing his political views. Rutledge was nominated to the Supreme Court by George Washington and was one of the Court's original members. He presided over the first session of the first circuit court as part of his duties as a supreme court justice. Bored by the Court's lack of activity and apparently unhappy over not being made chief justice, Rutledge resigned in March, 1791. Upon his resignation, Rutledge became chief justice of South Carolina. For the next four years, he presided with distinction over the courts of common pleas and general sessions. In 1795 he heard rumors that Chief Justice John Jay was considering resigning to become governor of New York. Rutledge wrote Washington expressing interest in Jay's position. On July 1, 1795, he resigned from the South Carolina bench when Washington offered him Jay's position, an interim appointment subject to congressional confirmation. Rutledge presided over the August term in 1795. The day before he was notified of his appointment as chief justice, Rutledge, while speaking in Charleston, had expressed his opposition to Jay's Treaty (1794) and called Jay a traitor. Whether Rutledge understood the need for Jay's conduct in negotiating the treaty is not as important as the fact that the Senate had ratified the document. His criticisms were aimed at the same people who were to decide on his fitness to be chief justice of the United States. Rutledge denounced the treaty as demeaning to an independent state. The Federalist Party, commanding the Senate, opposed Rutledge's nomination because of his political statements. On December 15, 1795, the Senate rejected his nomination. During his recess appointment as chief justice, he heard only two cases: Talbot v. Jansen and United States v. Peters. The reasons given for the Senate's rejection included Rutledge's alleged health problems and age; some senators said that he was mentally unstable. However, no evidence indicates that his rejection was anything other than political. He changed the Court by introducing a precedent: Justices had to be publicly apolitical, a warning that later justices have found fruitful.



Further Reading

  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Cushman, Clare, ed. The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789-1995. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1995.
  • Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
  • Harrington, Matthew P. Jay and Ellsworth, The First Courts: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2007.