Horace Gray gained prominence as a Massachusetts jurist and a U.S. Supreme Court justice. In his fifty-three-year career as a lawyer and judge, Gray earned a reputation as an expert on legal history and precedent.
Gray was born in the prosperous Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston on March 24, 1828. His grandfather, william gray, was a prominent merchant and shipowner, and his father, Horace Gray, was a successful manufacturer. His uncle, Francis Calley Gray, gained fame for discovering the original Liberties of the Massachusetts Colony in New England, the first constitution of the colony, which was drawn up by nathaniel ward and adopted in 1641.
Gray attended Harvard College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1848 he entered Harvard Law School; he received his law degree one year later. After two years of working in various law offices, Gray opened his own firm in Boston, where he practiced law until 1864. In addition to practicing law, Gray worked as reporter and editor of the Massachusetts Reports, a collection of court opinions and commentary on Massachusetts case law.
The position of reporter of the Massachusetts Reports traditionally led to a seat on the state supreme court, and that tradition played out for Gray. In 1864 he was named to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts by Governor John A. Andrew. At age thirty-six, Gray was the youngest appointee in the history of that court.
As a justice, Gray was formal and stern. He required conservative dress in his court, and he lectured lawyers on their conduct. He demanded that attorneys arrive prepared, and he asked frequent questions from the bench. Gray's opinions were thorough and well documented. In 1873 Gray assumed the position of chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
In 1881 President james garfield was looking for a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, to replace the ailing justice nathan clifford. Garfield was considering Gray and asked for copies of his opinions. Considering such self-promotion unseemly, Gray refused to send anything to Garfield. After Garfield's death in September 1881, Senator George F. Hoar recommended Gray to the new president, chester a. arthur, and Arthur nominated Gray as Clifford's replacement.
Gray authored many opinions on important issues of the day, including cases involving industry, immigration, and state-federal relations. One lasting opinion written by Gray involved the power of the federal government to issue paper money. In Juilliard v. Greenman, 110 U.S. 421, 4 S. Ct. 122, 28 L. Ed. 204 (1884), the High Court established that the United States, through Congress, had the power to issue paper money against its own credit during times of peace as well as times of war.
The Juilliard opinion revealed Gray's strong nationalist sentiment, which became a hallmark of Gray's service on the Court. Gray tended to promote the rights of the United States in its own endeavors and in its relations with other countries. He led the Court in upholding a federal law limiting the immigration of Chinese into the United States (Nishimura Ekiu v. United States, 142 U.S. 651, 12 S. Ct. 336, 35 L. Ed. 1146 ). In Fong Yue Ting v. United States, 149 U.S. 698, 13 S. Ct. 1016, 37 L. Ed. 905 (1893), Gray dismissed the notion that resident aliens could claim the protection of the U.S. Constitution. Gray also wrote the opinion in Hilton v. Guyot, 159 U.S. 113, 16 S. Ct. 139, 40 L. Ed. 95 (1895), in which the Court held that the United States did not have to recognize judgments obtained in France, because France did not recognize judgments obtained in the United States.
Gray never attained the legendary status enjoyed by some Supreme Court justices, perhaps because of his unwillingness to stray beyond the bounds of precedent and author far reaching opinions that change the course of the law.
"[I]t behooves the Court to be careful that it does not undertake to pass upon political questions, the final decision of which has been committed by the Constitution to the other departments of the government."
Gray died September 15, 1902, in Nahant, Massachusetts.
Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. 1995. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions. New York: Chelsea House.
"Horace Gray." 1992. The Supreme Court of the United States: Its Beginnings and Its Justices, 1790–1991. Washington, D.C.: Commission of the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, Library of Congress.
Library of Congress. 1981. Memorials of the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Vol. 2. Littleton, Colo.: Rothman.