The Supreme Court: Joseph Story (1811-1845)

Joseph Story (1811-1845)

As we discussed in Marshall Court, Marshall had minimal legal training and was not known for his legal research abilities. That hole was filled for Marshall by Joseph Story, who was widely regarded for his legal scholarship.

Before being appointed to the Supreme Court, Story served as a Congressman, as Speaker of the Massachusetts House, and as a leader of the bar. We discussed the rivalry between the Federalists and Republicans regarding states in Marshall Court. Republican President James Madison appointed Story, thinking he would be a champion of the state's rights side, but he instead became a close ally to John Marshall and helped to lead the charge for a strong federal government.

Supreme Sayings

“Mr. Jefferson stands at the head of the enemies of the Judiciary, and I doubt not will leave behind him a numerous progeny bred in the same school. The truth is and cannot be disguised, even from vulgar observation, that the Judiciary in our country is essentially feeble, and must always be open to attack from all quarters …. Its only support is the wise and the good and the elevated in society; and these, we all know, must ever remain in a discouraging minority in all Governments.”

—From a letter written by Joseph Story that was reprinted in the 1845 book, Life and Letters of Joseph Story

Martin v. Hunter's Lessee

Story didn't take long to let his views on state's rights be known. One of his most famous decisions was Martin v. Hunter's Lessee in 1816. Virginia confiscated all lands owned by foreigners after passing a series of laws making it illegal for land to be held by foreigners. David Hunter benefited by that decision when he was granted 800 acres that the state had confiscated from Denny Martin Fairfax, a British subject.

Fairfax sued Hunter for the return of the land. When Fairfax died, his heir, Philip Martin, continued the fight. Martin argued that Fairfax's ownership was protected by treaties signed between the United States and Great Britain, which guaranteed British subjects the right to hold land in America. The Virginia Court of Appeals upheld the state's land grant to Hunter, but was overturned by the United States Supreme Court in 1813.

The Virginia Court refused to obey the United States Supreme Court ruling, saying the United States Supreme Court had no right to review the decisions of state courts under the United States Constitution. Virginia lost on that argument when Story ruled that section 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which gave the United States Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction over state courts, was valid when a state court denied the validity of a federal statute. This ruling firmly established the appellate jurisdiction of the United States Supreme Court. Justice Story said in his opinion for the court:

  • “The questions involved in this judgment are of great importance and delicacy. Perhaps it is not too much to affirm that, upon their right decision rest some of the most solid principles which have hitherto been supposed to sustain and protect the Constitution itself. … The Constitution of the United States was ordained and established not by the States in their sovereign capacities, but emphatically, as the preamble of the Constitution declares, by ‘the people of the United States.' … The Constitution was not, therefore, necessarily carved out of existing State sovereignties, nor a surrender of powers already existing in State institutions, for the powers of the States depend upon their own Constitutions, and the people of every State had the right to modify and restrain them according to their own views of the policy or principle. On the other hand, it is perfectly clear that the sovereign powers vested in the State governments by their respective Constitutions remained unaltered and unimpaired except so far as they were granted to the Government of the United States. … These deductions do not rest upon general reasoning, plain and obvious as they seem to be. They have been positively recognized by one of the articles in amendment of the Constitution, which declares that: ‘The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.'”

Justice Story also in this decision talks about the fact that the Constitution was deliberately written in general language so that it could stand the test of time and serve many generations:

Court Connotations

The position of Dane Professor of Law was established at Harvard College in 1829 with a donation from Nathan Dane, who gave a total of $15,000 over his lifetime to Harvard Law School. These donations paid for the Dane professorship and the founding of Dane Hall. Nathan Dane served in positions for both the Massachusetts and U.S. government. His service included being a delegate from Massachusetts for the Continental Congress from 1785 to 1787.

  • “The Constitution unavoidably deals in general language. It did not suit the purposes of the people, in framing this great charter of our liberties, to provide for minute specifications of its powers or to declare the means by which those powers should be carried into execution. It was foreseen that this would be a perilous and difficult, if not an impracticable, task. The instrument was not intended to provide merely for the exigencies of a few years, but was to endure through a long lapse of ages, the events of which were locked up in the inscrutable purposes of Providence. It could not be foreseen what new changes and modifications of power might be indispensable to effectuate the general objects of the charter, and restrictions and specifications which at the present might seem salutary might in the end prove the overthrow of the system itself. Hence its powers are expressed in general terms, leaving to the legislature from time to time to adopt its own means to effectuate legitimate objects and to mould and model the exercise of its powers as its own wisdom and the public interests, should require.”

In addition to his support for a strong national government, Justice Story's other key contribution for the developing nation was his expertise in commercial law. His early rulings helped to shape today's corporate laws. He was the first to establish that a corporation could operate freely as individuals across state boundaries. His view of corporate America helped the country expand and build a strong economy. I won't delve deeply into corporate law here.

Justice Story's legal contributions did not stop at the Supreme Court. In 1829 he became the first Dane Professor of Law at Harvard College. He continued to serve on the court and teach at Harvard. He also wrote a series of legal texts, many of which were used as textbooks in U.S. colleges until 1905 when the texts became outdated because of changes to the Constitution and related constitutional law.

Story served on the Court for 33 years. He died in September 1945 while he was still serving on the Court.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.