The curious case of Associate Justice John Rutledge

With the Supreme Court in the news, I’ve decided to brush off some of my favorite court history books and tell some interesting stories you might not know about the court, its traditions and justices. We’ll start with John Rutledge.

As he was being fished out of Charleston Harbor, John Rutledge might have recalled a pretty dignified life as a member of the founding generation. He’d been president of South Carolina, then its governor. He’d been a member of both Continental Congresses. He’d even chaired the committee that presented the first full draft of the Constitution.

If he had been thinking about those days as he was dragged from the waters, they were old, dusty memories.

He’d fallen down a rough road into grief, shame and madness at that point.

In 1791, Rutledge and John Jay were the first members of the Supreme Court. He’d resign, however, without having ever heard a case. Historians say it was because he wanted to be the chief justice of the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas and Sessions.

Yeah, the early incarnations of the Supreme Court weren’t held in that high regard.

Then 1795 came along and chaos reigned.

First, John Jay resigned to become New York’s governor. Rutledge was nominated, during a senate recess*, to replace him.

A scandal was brewing across the nation at the time because of Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain. Americans were hungry for war.** And Jay was accused of treason by some partisans.

With that backdrop, Rutledge (appointed by President Washington, whose administration lobbied for and negotiated the treaty) gave a speech saying “that he had rather the President should die than sign that puerile instrument.”

That’s an interesting thing to say about the guy who just got you a new fancy gig. It’s also probably not a good thing to say when you have to be approved by a body that is approving said treaty.

Was he standing up for his principles? Or was he insane, driven mad by alcoholism and grief over the loss of his wife?

The latter was argued by the Federalists. This reputation would be torn apart by the time his actual nomination hit the Senate. Despite him being a sitting justice at the time, he was rejected by the senate, without a fight from Washington, and sent packing.

Fascinatingly, the court did hear — and decide — two cases while a supposed insane man sat on the bench.

Talbot V. Jenson said Americans could hold dual citizenship, that American law held on the high seas, and that an American who renounces his citizenship doesn’t lose all claims to citizenship. I’m not going to pretend I fully understand United States V. Peters, but it’s a fascinating case and you should read up on it.

So, if you think the chaos wrought by Associate Justice Scalia’s death is a hot mess, it’s not the first brought on by the court.

*Yes, recess appointments have a long history, dating back to our country’s very founders. That said, I’d be remiss not to point out that recesses were a lot longer back in the day.
** Americans are always hungry for war.

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