Joseph P. Bradley, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

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Joseph Philo Bradley, Hon.

Birthdate: (78)
Birthplace: Albany, New York, United States
Death: January 22, 1892 (78)
Albany, Albany, New York, United States
Place of Burial: Newark, Essex County, New Jersey, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Philo Bradley and Mercy Bradley
Husband of Mary Bradley
Father of Mary Burnett Butler; William Hornblower Bradley; Caroline Hornblower and Charles Bradley

Occupation: US Supreme Court Justice
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Joseph P. Bradley, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

Joseph Philo Bradley (March 14, 1813 – January 22, 1892) was an American jurist best known for his service on the United States Supreme Court, and on the Electoral Commission that decided the disputed 1876 presidential election.

Early life

The son of Philo Bradley and his wife Mercy Gardner Bradley, Bradley was born to humble beginnings in Berne, New York, and attended local schools. He began teaching at the age of 16. In 1833, the Dutch Reformed Church of Berne advanced young Joseph Bradley $250 to study for the ministry at Rutgers University. While there, he decided to study law instead, graduating in 1836. After graduation he was made Principal of the Millstone Academy.

Not long afterward, he was persuaded by his Rutgers classmate Frederick T. Frelinghuysen to join him in Newark and pursue legal studies at the Office of the Collector of the Port of Newark. He was admitted to the bar in 1839.

Bradley began in private practice in New Jersey, specializing in patent and railroad law, and he became very prominent in these fields and quite wealthy. Bradley remained dedicated to self-study throughout his life and collected an extensive library. He married Mary Hornblower in Newark in 1844. (His ancestors and descendants are posted on the Berne Historical Project web site.)

Appointment to the Supreme Court

As a commercial litigator, Bradley argued many cases before various federal courts, earning him a national reputation. Thus, when Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1869, creating a new seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, he was sufficiently well known by associates of President Grant to be recommended as a Supreme Court nominee. Bradley was nominated on February 7 and was confirmed by the Senate on March 21, taking his seat on the court as an Associate Justice that same day. On moving to Washington, Bradley purchased the home that had previously belonged to Stephen A. Douglas.

Bradley remained on the bench until 1891, when he became greatly weakened by disease (possibly tuberculosis). He took his seat on the bench in October of that year, but was forced to retire a few weeks later by failing health. He died a few months later.

Supreme Court Jurisprudence

Bradley took a broad view of the national government's powers under the Commerce Clause but interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment somewhat narrowly, as did much of the rest of the court at the time. He authored the majority opinion in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 but was among the four dissenters in the Slaughterhouse Cases in 1873. His interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment in both cases remained the basis for subsequent rulings through the modern era.

Bradley concurred with the court's decision in Bradwell v. Illinois, which held that the right to practice law was not constitutionally protected under the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Bradley disagreed with the majority opinion, apparently because it rested on the decision in the Slaughterhouse Cases, but concurred in the judgement on grounds that the clause did not protect women in their choice of vocation. The concurrence is noted for Bradley's description of womanhood: "The harmony, not to say identity, of interest and views which belong, or should belong, to the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband (...) The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator."

It was due to Bradley's intervention that prisoners charged in the Colfax Riot (also known as the Colfax Massacre of 1873) were freed after he happened to attend their trial and ruled that the federal law they were charged under was unconstitutional. This resulted in the federal government's bringing the case on appeal to the Supreme Court as United States v. Cruikshank (1875). The court's ruling on this case meant that the federal government would not intervene on paramilitary and group attacks on individuals. It essentially opened the door to heightened paramilitary activity in the South that forced Republicans from office, suppressed black voting, and opened the way for white Democratic takeover of state legislatures, and resulting Jim Crow legislation and passage of disfranchising constitutions.

Bradley dissented in Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad v. Minnesota, which though not racially motivated was another due process case arising from the Fourteenth Amendment. In his dissent, Bradley argued that the majority had in siding with the railroad created a situation where the reasonableness of an act of a state legislature was a judicial question, subjugating the legislature to the will of the judiciary. Bradley's opinion in this case is echoed in modern arguments regarding judicial activism.

Bradley also wrote the opinion in Hans v. Louisiana, holding that a state could not be sued in a federal court by one of its own citizens.

As an individual Supreme Court Justice, Bradley decided In re Guiteau, a petition for habeas corpus filed on behalf of Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James A. Garfield. Guiteau's lawyers argued that he had been improperly tried in the District of Columbia because, although Guiteau shot Garfield in Washington, D.C., Garfield died at his home in New Jersey. Bradley denied the petition in a lengthy opinion and Guiteau was executed.

1876 Electoral Commission controversy

Bradley is best remembered as being the 15th and final member of the Electoral Commission that decided the disputed 1876 presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden.

A Republican since the early days of the party, Bradley was not an obvious first choice. The four justices charged with selecting the fifth and final justice (who, all realized, would be the deciding vote on the commission as all 14 other members were strictly partisan) initially chose justice David Davis for the job, but as Davis had just been elected to the United States Senate he was unable to join. The justices then settled on Bradley. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, though it is evident that Bradley was thought by his colleagues to be the most politically neutral; the court overall at that time had more Republicans than Democrats, however.

Bradley wrote a number of opinions on the electoral commission and justified his votes to his own satisfaction; he sided with the Republicans on every case. On the night before the final vote the Democrats visited Dr. Bradley and believed they had convinced him so that he would decide in their favor. But the next morning his vote was pro-Republican and Hayes was declared President. Sometime after midnight, a delegation of Republicans had allegedly visited the Bradley home and perhaps with the aid of Mrs. Bradley, had convinced the Judge to change his opinion. Whatever happened, the vote of Joseph Bradley had elected Rutherford B. Hayes as President of the United States. Because of this he was vilified in the press and privately as well, even receiving a number of death threats at his home in Washington.


Bradley died in Washington, D.C. and was interred at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Newark.

Bradley's personal, legal, and court papers are archived at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark and open for research.

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Joseph P. Bradley, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court's Timeline

March 14, 1813
Albany, New York, United States
September 26, 1845
Age 32
New Jersey, United States
November 2, 1847
Age 34
New Jersey, United States
September 13, 1853
Age 40
Newark, Essex County, New Jersey, United States
August 31, 1857
Age 44
Newark, Essex County, New Jersey, United States
January 22, 1892
Age 78
Albany, Albany, New York, United States
Newark, Essex County, New Jersey, United States