The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions - Vol. 2

By Leon Friedman; Fred L. Israel | Go to book overview

there. He had not grown on the Bench; in fact, he had steadily deteriorated. To be sure, his political predictability during the war was an asset to the Lincoln administration, which was uncertain about counting a vote of the Taney Court in deciding the fate of an important war measure. But in peacetime sound political bearings were not enough and certainly, in any case, not a substitute for judicial excellence. Swayne's record was unimpressive in constitutional law. He delivered merely four opinions of consequence from 1874 until 1881. Even in a landmark case, such as that of the income tax, what matters is not his quality of reasoning, prose, or craftsmanship but the conclusion in the decision itself. Swayne's opinions often reflect a flat, bleak landscape; he paraded his learning, but his opinions lack breadth and depth. And when he had something to say, which was not often, he usually did not say it very well. Moreover, one reads again and again his invocation, "Our duty is to execute the law, not to make it." Yet to interpret the law is to adapt it to new conditions, and such growth encompasses change not merely in things but in ideas and values. While Swayne was capable of adaptation in the small realm of patent law, he was less so elsewhere, except in his resourceful defense of railroads. If he was less rigid than a Nathan Clifford, it was not so much because of superior temperament or broader sympathies but because he was a straight Republican. Yet temperament also played a negative role in his lack of effectiveness on the Bench for his initial popularity and influence did not wear so well over nineteen years. Colleague Samuel Miller sketched an unflattering picture to a friend when he wrote that the "impression which Judge Swayne seems to have made on you, is the same first impression that he makes on every one ... he charmed everybody.... Unfortunately it does not last. So much of it is found to be mere courtesy . . . an absence of any real sincerity and the presence of an ever watchful selfishness." How else can one explain his hostility toward some of his colleagues, which was reciprocated, or his jealousy toward Chief Justice Waite, his daydreaming over the Chief Justiceship, and his agonizing delay in retiring. Taking himself too seriously and overestimating his own mediocre talents, Swayne flickered as one of the Court's lesser lights until a chill wind blew it out.


SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Scattered letters of Noah Swayne are to be found in several libraries in Ohio but they do not cover his judicial career on the United States Supreme Court. Swayne's appointment to the Supreme Court and his quests for the chief justiceship are graphically detailed in the letters of Abraham Lincoln and Samuel J. Tilden, and in David M. Silver, Lincoln's Supreme Court ( Urbana, Ill., 1956). Swayne's role in the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment is identified in the papers of Rutherford B. Hayes at the Hayes Library, while the specific ratification fight in Ohio is given in William Gillette, The Right to Vote: Politics and the Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment ( Baltimore, 1965)

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The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions - Vol. 2
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Justices of the United States Supreme Court - Their Lives and Major Opinions *
  • Contents *
  • About the Editors and Contributors vi
  • Peter V. Daniel *
  • Selected Bibliography 406
  • Samuel Nelson *
  • Selected Bibliography 420
  • Levi Woodbury *
  • Selected Bibliography 433
  • Robert C. Grier *
  • Selected Bibliography 445
  • Benjamin R. Curtis *
  • Selected Bibliography 460
  • John A. Campbell *
  • Selected Bibliography 475
  • Nathan Clifford *
  • Selected Bibliography 490
  • Noah H. Swayne *
  • Selected Bibliography 502
  • Samuel Miller *
  • Selected Bibliography 518
  • David Davis *
  • Selected Bibliography 528
  • Stephen J. Field *
  • Selected Bibliography 550
  • Salmon P. Chase *
  • Selected Bibliography 567
  • William Strong *
  • Selected Bibliography 578
  • Joseph P. Bradley *
  • Selected Bibliography 599
  • Ward Hunt *
  • Selected Bibliography 609
  • Morrison R. Waite *
  • Selected Bibliography 625
  • John M. Harlan *
  • Selected Bibliography 642
  • William B. Woods *
  • Selected Bibliography 653
  • Stanley Matthews *
  • Selected Bibliography 665
  • Horace Gray *
  • Selected Bibliography 677
  • Samuel Blatchford *
  • Selected Bibliography 692
  • Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar *
  • Selected Bibliography 714
  • Melville W. Fuller *
  • Selected Bibliography 740
  • David J. Brewer *
  • Selected Bibliography 761
  • Henry Billings Brown *
  • Selected Bibliography 773
  • George Shiras, Jr. *
  • Selected Bibliography 790
  • Howell E. Jackson *
  • Selected Bibliography 804
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