About Rufus Wheeler Peckham, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
Rufus Wheeler Peckham (November 8, 1838 – October 24, 1909) was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1895 until 1909. He was known for his strong use of substantive due process to invalidate regulations of business and property. Peckham's namesake father was also a lawyer and judge, and a congressman. His older brother, Wheeler Hazard Peckham (1833 – 1905), was one of the lawyers who prosecuted Boss Tweed, and a failed nominee to the Supreme Court. His other brother, John Henry, died at the age of 17.
Peckham was born in Albany, New York, to Rufus Wheeler Peckham and Isabella Adeline; his mother died when he was only nine. Following his graduation from The Albany Academy, he followed in his father's footsteps as a lawyer, being admitted to the bar in Albany in 1859 after teaching himself law by studying in his father's office. After a decade of private practice, Peckham served as the Albany district attorney from 1869 from 1872. Peckham then returned to private legal practice and served as counsel to the City of Albany, until being elected as a trial judge on the New York Supreme Court in 1883. In 1886, Peckham was elected to the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state. This was the third position that Peckham had held after his father, who had also served as the Albany D.A., on the New York Supreme Court, and finally on the Court of Appeals until his death in the 1873 Ville du Havre sinking.
Peckham was active in local Democratic politics, and served as a New York delegate to the 1876 Democratic National Convention. He was also a confidant to such tycoons as J. Pierpont Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefeller. Many believed these relationships predisposed Peckham to favor business interests while on the Supreme Court.
Rufus Peckham's brother Wheeler was a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Grover Cleveland, in 1894. However, this nomination was caught in the middle of a political tug-of-war between Cleveland and New York Senator David Hill, and Wheeler was the second nominee of Cleveland's that Hill managed to block; Senator Edward Douglass White was instead confirmed to the Court. By the time another seat on the Court was vacant after the death of Howell E. Jackson in 1895, Hill was weakened politically and Cleveland turned to Rufus Peckham, who was confirmed within six days on December of that year (by a Republican-controlled Senate) and took his oath of office in January 1896. As of 2010, Peckham remains the last Supreme Court Justice nominated by a Democratic President when the Senate had a Republican majority.
Peckham's stint on the Court has been called by many scholars the height of "laissez-faire" constitutionalism, during which the Court regularly struck down efforts to regulate labor standards and relations. Peckham's most notorious opinion was in Lochner v. New York (1905), in which the Court invalidated a limitation on bakers' working hours to sixty per week as being contrary to the individual right to freely contract, and as being unnecessary to protect health or safety. This contrasts with his seminal administrative law opinion, North American Cold Storage Co. v. Chicago (1908), where he upheld a Chicago ordinance that permitted inspectors to summarily destroy unsafe food without first granting a hearing to the property owner.
Beyond Lochner, Peckham is perhaps best known for his expansive interpretation of the Sherman antitrust law, which he saw as protecting sturdy small businessmen against unfair corporate competition. His opinions on civil rights for African Americans are remarkable only for the abandonment of his usual antistatism in voting to uphold Jim Crow laws - the most notable being Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which he silently joined the majority. On the other hand, he and Justice David Brewer were far more likely than any of their colleagues to vote in favor of Chinese litigants in the many immigration cases that came before the Court.
Peckham served on the Court until his death on October 24, 1909, at age 70, writing 303 opinions and dissenting only nine times. He was buried in Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, New York, later to be joined by his wife, Harriette Maria Arnold (December 13, 1839 - July 25, 1917). They both outlived both of their sons: Henry Arnold (August 6, 1868 – February 16, 1907) and Rufus Wheeler Jr. (January 28, 1870 – September 16, 1899).