Field, Stephen Johnson

views updated May 21 2018


Stephen Johnson Field served as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1863 to 1897, making him the second longest serving justice in the history of the Court. Field was a conservative who consistently upheld the interests of business. He became the prime advocate of the theory of "substantive due process," which favored private property rights over attempts by state and federal government to regulate the economy. Conservatives on the Court used substantive due process to strike down regulatory legislation until the 1930s.

Field was born in Haddam, Connecticut, on November 4, 1816. His family moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, when he was a young child. At thirteen he was sent to Turkey to live with his sister and her missionary husband. They later moved to Athens, Greece, where Field remained until entering Williams College in 1833. After graduating in 1837 he read the law with his older brother, david dudley field, who had emerged as a prominent New York City attorney and legal reformer.

In 1849 Field left New York City for the Gold Rush in northern California. He speculated in land, developed a thriving legal practice involving property and mineral rights, and organized the town of Marysville. He became Marysville's mayor and judge. In 1850 he was elected to the state legislature. He was instrumental in organizing standards of procedure for civil and criminal law and he also drafted mining laws. He ran for the state senate in 1851 but was defeated.

"The present assault upon capital is but the beginning. It will be but the stepping-stone to others, larger and more sweeping, 'til our political contests will become a war of the poor against the rich; awar constantly growing in intensity and bitterness."
—Stephen J. Field

Field was elected to the California Supreme Court in 1857. He became chief justice in 1859 and served until 1863. He concentrated his efforts on cases dealing with titles to land and mineral rights. In 1863 President abraham lincoln, a Republican, appointed Field to the U.S. Supreme Court. Though Field was a Democrat, he was a loyal Unionist during the Civil War and a well-respected state judge.

Field established his opposition to government interference with business in the slaughter-house cases, 83 U.S. (16 Wall) 36, 21 L. Ed. 394 (1873). The case involved a Louisiana state law that allowed one meat company the exclusive right to slaughter livestock in New Orleans. Other packing companies were required to pay a fee for using the slaughterhouses. These companies filed suit, claiming that the law violated the privileges and immunities clause of the fourteenth amendment.

The Court upheld the Louisiana monopoly law, ruling that the Privileges and Immunities Clause had limited effect as it only reached privileges and immunities guaranteed by U.S. citizenship, not state citizenship. Field wrote a dissent, maintaining that "the privileges and immunities designated are those which of right belong to the citizens of all free governments." He saw the clause as a powerful tool to keep state government out of the affairs of business and the economy.

Field saw an opportunity to use the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause to curtail government interference with business. He first articulated the idea of substantive due process in his dissent in munn v. illinois, 94U.S. 113, 24 L. Ed. 77 (1876). The majority upheld the Illinois legislature's right to fix maximum storage rates charged by grain elevators and public warehouses and to require licenses to operate these facilities.

Field contended that the regulations violated due process and that under the U.S. system of government the legislature lacked the power "to fix the price which anyone shall receive for his property of any kind." By 1890 he had convinced the majority of the Court that his view of the Due Process Clause was correct and had extended its reach to the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause, using it to invalidate federal legislation that regulated business. Until the 1930s the Court overturned a succession of state and federal laws that attempted to regulate business and labor.

Field voted to strike down a federal income tax in pollock v. farmers' loan and trust co., 157 U.S. 429, 15 S. Ct. 673, 39 L. Ed. 759(1895), seeing the tax as a plot against capitalism. In his concurring opinion, Field warned, "The persistent assault upon capital is but the beginning. It will be a stepping stone to others larger and more sweeping till our political contests will become a war of the poor against the rich, a war constantly growing in intensity and bitterness."

Field entertained political ambitions while on the Court. In 1880 he sought the democratic party presidential nomination but did poorly at the nominating convention. He

became increasingly infirm during the 1890s and did little work. He was determined, however, to break John Marshall's record of thirty-three years on the Court. He achieved that record in 1896 (later to be surpassed by williamo. douglas) and retired in 1897. He died in Washington, D.C., on April 9, 1899.

further readings

Kens, Paul. 1997. Justice Stephen Field: Shaping Liberty from the Gold Rush to the Gilded Age. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

Pomeroy, John Norton. 2003. Some Account of the Work of Stephen J. Field as a Legislator, State Judge, and Judge of the Supreme Court of the United States Clark, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange.

Stephen Johnson Field

views updated May 21 2018

Stephen Johnson Field

The American jurist Stephen Johnson Field (1816-1899) was an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and a powerful partisan of unimpeded business expansion.

Stephen Field was born on Nov. 4, 1816, in Haddam, Conn., the son of a Congregationalist minister. He spent 2 years in Europe and the Middle East before entering Williams College, from which he graduated in 1837. He read law in the firm of his brother David in New York City, then moved to California in 1849.

The contradiction in Field's life between outrageous personal boldness and determination for law and order was a reflection of the frontier. At Yurbaville (later Marysville), Calif., as justice of the peace, Field was noted for his arbitrary but firm enforcement of the law. Despite an undignified controversy with another judge, he was elected in 1857 to the state's supreme court.

Field was a Unionist in the Civil War, and in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court. Notable among his early court writings were dissents in the Slaughter-House Cases (1873) and Munn v. Illinois (1873). In the latter Field presaged his philosophy of protecting business from the competition of governmentally created monopolies and from governmental regulation. This legal philosophy, referred to as "substantive due process," expressed the idea of putting limits on government in order to preserve liberty, along with the notion that government interference in the jungle of economic competition was unnatural.

Substantive due process came into full force in Field's circuit court opinion, later upheld by the Supreme Court, San Mateo v. Southern Pacific R.R. Co. (1882). Here, a corporation was defined as a "person" and was thus protected by the 14th Amendment from any deprivation of its rights by government intervention "without due process of law." This clause was a firm barrier against regulation, and with its protection, business enjoyed a legal immunity that lasted until the 1930s.

Field was a powerful voice in the Democratic party. He greatly resented being bypassed for the chief justiceship in 1888 by President Grover Cleveland. A gregarious man, he was not above sharing the hospitality of men whose corporations were engaged in litigation before the Supreme Court.

After serving on the Supreme Court longer than any other justice in its history, Field resigned in 1897. He died on April 9, 1899, in Washington, D.C.

Further Reading

Field's Personal Reminiscences of Early Days in California (1880; rev. ed. 1893) is illuminating. Carl Brent Swisher, Stephen J. Field: Craftsman of the Law (1930), is the standard biography. Also of value is the essay on Field in Robert G. McCloskey, American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise: A Study ofWilliam Graham Sumner, Stephen J. Field, and Andrew Carnegie (1951).

Additional Sources

The Fields and the law: essays, San Francisco: United States District Court for the Northern District of California Historical Society; New York: Federal Bar Council, 1986. □

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