There have been three South Carolina men who served on the Supreme Court of the United States.
The Judiciary Act of 1789 was passed by Congress on September 24, 1789, which established the Supreme Court of the United States made up of six justices who were to serve until death of retirement. That day, Pres. George Washington nominated John Jay as chief justice, and John Rutledge, William Cushing, John Blair, Robert Harrison, and James Wilson as associate justices. On September 26, all six appointments were confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
John Rutledge (September 17, 1739 – July 23, 1800), of Charleston, was one of the most important South Carolina Patriot leaders. He was the elder brother of Edward Rutledge, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. John served as the first President of South Carolina in 1776, and later as its first governor after the Declaration of Independence. He established a successful legal career after studying at Middle Temple in London. Rutledge also served as a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress, and as a delegate to the Continental Congress before being elected as President of South Carolina.
Rutledge left the Supreme Court in 1791 to become Chief Justice of the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas and Sessions. Following the resignation of John Jay in June 1795, Rutledge returned to the U.S. Supreme Court, this time as Chief Justice. As the vacancy came during a long Senate recess, Washington named Rutledge as the new chief justice by a recess appointment.
He was a delegate to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, which wrote the United States Constitution. During the convention, he served as Chairman of the Committee of Detail, which produced the first full draft of the Constitution. The following year he also participated in the South Carolina convention to ratify the Constitution. He was then appointed to the first Supreme Court.
He was commissioned as the second Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on June 30, 1795 and took the Judicial Oath on August 12.
On July 16, 1795, Rutledge gave a highly controversial speech denouncing the Jay Treaty with Great Britain. He said, “that he had rather the President should die than sign that puerile instrument”– and that he “preferred war to an adoption of it.” Rutledge’s speech against the Jay Treaty cost him the support of many in the Washington administration, which supported the treaty, and in the Senate, which would soon be called upon to advise the President on his nomination of Rutledge to the judicial post and to consent to its ratification by a two-thirds vote.
Two cases were decided while Rutledge was chief justice. In United States v. Peters, the Court ruled that federal district courts had no jurisdiction over crimes committed against Americans in international waters. In Talbot v. Janson, the Court held that a citizen of the United States did not waive all claims to U.S. citizenship by either renouncing citizenship of an individual state, or by becoming a citizen of another country. The Rutledge Court thus established an important precedent for multiple citizenship in the United States.
By the time of his formal nomination to the Court on December 10, 1795, Rutledge’s reputation was in tatters and support for his nomination had faded. Rumors of mental illness and alcohol abuse swirled around him, concocted largely by the Federalist press. His words and actions in response to the Jay Treaty were used as evidence of his continued mental decline decline. The Senate rejected his appointment on December 15, 1795, by a vote of 14–10. This was the first time that the Senate had rejected a Supreme Court nomination. To date, it is the only Supreme Court recess appointment not to be subsequently confirmed, and Rutledge remains the only Supreme Court justice unseated involuntarily by the Senate.
William Johnson, Jr. (December 27, 1771 – August 4, 1834) was an American attorney, state legislator, and judge from South Carolina. He served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1804 to 1834 after previously serving in the South Carolina House of Representatives.
In 1790, William Johnson graduated from Princeton University and three years passed the bar after tutelage under Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Johnson was an adherent of the Democratic-Republican Party, and represented Charleston in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1794 to 1800. In his last term, from 1798 to 1800, he served as Speaker of the House.
On March 22, 1804 President Thomas Jefferson nominated Johnson to be an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on May 7, 1804 and received his commission the same day. He was the first of Jefferson’s three appointments to the court and was selected for sharing Jefferson’s political philosophy. Johnson was the first member of the Court who was not a Federalist.
In his years on the Court, Johnson developed a reputation as a frequent and articulate dissenter from the Federalist majority. While Chief Justice John Marshall was frequently able to steer the opinions of most of the justices, Johnson demonstrated an independent streak. Johnson restored the practice of delivering seriatim opinions and from 1805 through 1833, he wrote nearly half of the Supreme Court’s dissenting opinions, picking up the nickname the “first dissenter.”
Johnson was a pioneer of judicial restraint and believed that the legislature and executive branch had a “superior competency and fitness” to deal with evolving problems. His jurisprudence relied on the idea of personal sovereignty enforced by legislation. While he believed an independent judiciary was important, he also believed that the legislature had the right to control the courts in order to protect its own sovereignty. Johnson laid out his views on legal construction, the process by which an ambiguous word or phrase in a statute is determined, in his opinion in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), which stated that:
“I have never found much benefit resulting from the inquiry, whether the whole, or any part of it, is to be construed strictly or liberally. The simple, classical, precise, yet comprehensive language in which it is couched, leaves, at most, but very little latitude for construction.”
According to historian Sandra F. Vanburkleo, Johnson “valued common-sense argument, factual and doctrinal accuracy, solid annotation, and full disclosure of the circumstances of the case.”
Johnson died in Brooklyn, New York, August 4, 1834, following particularly painful surgery on his jaw. Johnson had been told the surgery would likely kill him beforehand however he opted to proceed with the procedure.
James Francis Byrnes (May 2, 1882 – April 9, 1972) was an American judge and politician from the state of South Carolina. A member of the Democrat Party, Byrnes served in Congress, the executive branch, and on the United States Supreme Court. He was also the 104th Governor of South Carolina, making him one of the very few politicians to serve in all three branches of the American federal government while also being active in state government.
As a young man he apprenticed to a lawyer, then a common practice, read for the law, and was admitted to the bar in 1903. In 1908, he was appointed solicitor for the second circuit of South Carolina and served until 1910. Byrnes was a protégé of “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman and often had a moderating influence on the fiery segregationist Senator.
Historian George E. Mowry called Byrnes “the most influential Southern member of Congress between John Calhoun and Lyndon Johnson.” Byrnes proved a brilliant legislator, working behind the scenes to form coalitions, and avoiding the high-profile oratory that characterized much of Southern politics. He became a close ally of President Woodrow Wilson, who often entrusted important political tasks to the capable young Representative, rather than to more experienced lawmakers. In the 1920s, he was a champion of the “good roads” movement, which attracted motorists and politicians to large-scale road building programs.
In 1930, Byrnes was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he supported the policies of his longtime friend, President Franklin Roosevelt. Byrnes championed the New Deal and sought federal investment in South Carolina water projects. In 1937, Byrnes supported Roosevelt on the controversial court packing plan, and voted against the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. He opposed Roosevelt’s efforts to purge conservative Democrats in the 1938 primary elections. On foreign policy, Byrnes was a champion of Roosevelt’s positions of helping the United Kingdom and France against Nazi Germany and of maintaining a hard line against Japan.
As a reward for his crucial support on many issues, in a blatantly political move, Roosevelt appointed Byrnes an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in July 1941. Byrnes was the last justice who had never attended law school to serve on the court. Byrnes resigned from the Court after only 15 months to head the Office of Economic Stabilization. His Supreme Court tenure is the second shortest of any justice During the war, Byrnes led the Office of Economic Stabilization and the Office of War Mobilization and was a candidate to replace Henry A. Wallace as Roosevelt’s running mate in the 1944 election, but instead, Harry S. Truman was nominated by the 1944 Democratic National Convention.
Byrnes returned to elective politics in 1950 by winning election as the Governor of South Carolina.