Remarks of the Chief Justice: My Life in the Law Series

By Rehnquist, William H. | Duke Law Journal, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Remarks of the Chief Justice: My Life in the Law Series


Rehnquist, William H., Duke Law Journal


INTRODUCTION

This afternoon I shall speak about my predecessors as Chief Justice, except for Chief Justice Warren Burger, with whom I served. I am the sixteenth Chief Justice, and certainly one noteworthy fact is that in the 213 years of our country's existence, while there have been forty-three Presidents, there have been only sixteen Chief Justices. I am going to go in chronological order, starting with John Jay, who was the first Chief Justice, and ending with the fourteenth Chief Justice, Earl Warren. But I shall pass quickly over the first three who held this office, because they really had little or no influence on the institution, and they sat at a time when the Supreme Court was far different from what it is today. During the first ten years of its existence, the Court decided only a total of sixty cases--that is not sixty cases per year, but six cases per year. There was so little business that the Justices sat in Washington for only a few weeks during February and early March, spending the rest of their time riding circuit as trial judges. It was only with the arrival of John Marshall, the fourth Chief Justice, that the Court acquired its co-equal status--along with Congress and the President--in our tripartite system of federal government.

JOHN JAY (CHIEF JUSTICE FROM 1789-1795)

Let us turn now to John Jay. He was appointed Chief Justice by George Washington in 1789. In his formal portrait that hangs in the East Conference Room at the Supreme Court, he is wearing a red robe. He is the only one of the Chief Justices who sat for his portrait so attired; the others wore the traditional black.

In 1794, Washington decided that he needed a special ambassador to go to the Court of St. James and negotiate with Great Britain various disputes that had come up as a result of the Treaty of Paris. He picked Jay, who sailed for England in the spring of 1794 and did not return until the summer of 1795. There is no indication that he was greatly missed in the work of the Supreme Court during this time. When Jay returned, he found that he had been elected Governor of New York in absentia and resigned the Chief Justiceship to assume what he regarded as the more important job--Governor of New York.

JOHN RUTLEDGE (CHIEF JUSTICE FROM AUGUST 1795-DECEMBER 1795)

We go now to John Rutledge, from South Carolina. He is surely the least known of the Chief Justices, and deservedly so, for he held the office for less than a year. Washington gave him a recess appointment to succeed Jay in the summer of 1795, but in December the Senate refused to confirm him by a vote of fourteen to ten.

OLIVER ELLSWORTH (CHIEF JUSTICE FROM 1796-1800)

Washington now appointed his third Chief Justice--Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut. Ellsworth was dismissed from Yale College after two years for rowdyism, but he went on to graduate from Princeton and practice law in Hartford. Like Jay, Ellsworth was selected by the President--now John Adams--for a special mission to France. He left for France in the fall of 1799 and fell ill while there. He submitted his resignation to President John Adams in December of 1800.

JOHN MARSHALL (CHIEF JUSTICE FROM 1801-1835)

Now we come to John Marshall, known as "the Great Chief Justice." John Marshall served as Chief Justice for thirty-four years--from 1801 until 1835. He was born in the Blue Ridge foothills of Virginia, about fifty miles west of present-day Washington. He had very little formal education. But by the time he reached twenty-five years of age, he had served as a captain commanding a line company of artillery in the Battles of Brandywine and Monmouth during the Revolutionary War. He had also suffered through the terrible winter at Valley Forge with George Washington and the rest of the Continental troops. It was this experience which led him to remark that he looked upon the "United States as his country, and Congress as his government. …

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