Stephen Johnson Field, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court

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Stephen Johnson Field, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court

Birthdate: (82)
Birthplace: Haddam, Middlesex, Connecticut, USA
Death: April 9, 1899 (82)
Washington DC, USA
Immediate Family:

Son of Rev. David Dudley Field, Sr. and Submit Field
Husband of Sue Virginia Field
Brother of David Field, II; Emilia Ann Brewer; Timothy Beals Field; Matthew D Dickinson Field; Jonathan Edwards Field, Sr and 3 others

Occupation: 38th Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, 1863-1897
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Stephen Johnson Field, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court

Stephen Johnson Field (November 4, 1816 – April 9, 1899) was an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court from May 20, 1863, to December 1, 1897. Prior to this, he was the 5th Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court.

Early life and education

Born in Haddam, Connecticut, he was the sixth of the nine children of David Dudley Field I, a Congregationalist minister, and his wife Submit Dickinson. His family produced three other children of major prominence in 19th Century America: David Dudley Field II the prominent attorney, Cyrus Field the millionaire investor and creator of the Atlantic Cable, and Rev. Henry Martyn Field a prominent clergyman and travel writer. He grew up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and went to Turkey at thirteen with his sister and her missionary husband. He graduated from Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 1837. While attending Williams College he was one of the original Founders of Delta Upsilon Fraternity. After studying law in New York City with his brother David Dudley II, they practiced law together until 1848 when he went west to California in the Gold Rush.

Career in California politics and law

There his legal practice boomed and he was elected alcalde, a form of mayor and justice of the peace under the old Mexican rule of law, of Marysville. Because the Gold Rush city could not afford a jail, and it cost too much to transport prisoners to San Francisco, Field implemented the whipping post, believing that without such a brutal implement many in the rough and tumble city would be hanged for minor crimes. The voters sent him to the California State Assembly in 1850 to represent Yuba County, but he lost a race the next year for the State Senate. His successful legal practice led to his election to the California Supreme Court in 1857, serving six years.

U.S. Supreme Court justice

Abraham Lincoln appointed him to the newly created tenth Supreme Court seat, to achieve both regional balance (he was a Westerner) and political balance (he was a Democrat, albeit a Unionist one). It would also give the Court someone familiar with real estate and mining issues.

He was a vocal proponent of the substantive due process theory that protected property rights from regulation under the Fourteenth Amendment--as illustrated in his dissents to the Slaughterhouse Cases and Munn v. Illinois. Field's views were eventually adopted by the court's majority, but only after his death. However, he helped end the income tax (Pollock v. Farmers' Loan and Trust Company), limit anti-trust law (United States v. E.C. Knight Company), and the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

On the issue of ethnic minorities, he had a mixed record. Field wrote opinions against California's laws discriminating against the Chinese immigrants to that state. Serving as an individual jurist in district court, he notably struck down the racist Pigtail Ordinance in 1879, making him unpopular with the Californian public. However, Justice Field dissented in Strauder v. West Virginia, a case holding that the exclusion of African-Americans from a jury that convicted Strauder, an African-American, of murder, was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. He also joined the infamous case Plessy v. Ferguson that upheld racial segregation.

Field insisted on breaking John Marshall's record of thirty-three years on the court, even though he was not able to handle the workload. His colleagues asked him to resign due to his being intermittently senile but he refused, staying on until 1897. He lived only two years more, dying in Washington, D.C., and was buried there in the Rock Creek Cemetery.

Justice Field was assaulted by a former associate of his on the California Supreme Court, David S. Terry, whom Field had recently jailed for contempt during a long-running legal case involving Terry's wife and her former lover and purported first husband, William Sharon. Terry was shot and killed by Field's bodyguard. Ironically, legal issues arising from the shooting came before the Supreme Court in the 1890 habeas corpus case of In re Neagle.

Justice Field's aspirations to become Chief Justice went unfulfilled, as he had made many enemies both political and personal. He is the second longest serving Associate Justice.

He was also the uncle of Associate Justice David Josiah Brewer.

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Stephen Johnson Field, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court's Timeline

November 4, 1816
Haddam, Middlesex, Connecticut, USA
April 9, 1899
Age 82
Washington DC, USA