Miller, Samuel Freeman

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Samuel Freeman Miller served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1862 to 1890. During his long tenure on the Court, Miller played a major role in restricting the reach of the fourteenth amendment into areas of the law reserved to the states. He is most famous for writing the majority opinion in the slaughter-house cases, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 36, 21 L. Ed. 394 (1873).

Miller was born on April 5, 1816, in Richmond, Kentucky, and grew up on a farm. He attended Transylvania University, where he earned a medical degree in 1838. Miller practiced medicine for ten years, and during that time he taught himself law. In 1847, he was admitted to the Kentucky bar, and soon afterward he abandoned his medical practice for a law practice in Knox County, Kentucky.

Miller became more interested in politics after he became an attorney. A member of the whig party, Miller was opposed to slavery, a position that caused him difficulty in Kentucky as pro-slavery sentiment began to rise. In 1850, he moved to Iowa, which was more tolerant of his antislavery views. He established a law practice in Keokuk, Iowa, and became a prominent member of the republican party and a supporter of Abraham Lincoln's presidential campaign in 1860.

Lincoln appointed Miller to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1862, during the most difficult period for the Union during the Civil War. Miller voted to sustain Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus and to try civilians by military courts-martial. Following the war, Miller voted to uphold the constitutionality of loyalty oaths that were required of former Confederates who wished to hold public office.

Miller is best known for his majority opinion in the Slaughter-House Cases in 1873. At issue was the scope of the authority in the Fourteenth Amendment, which had been passed in 1868 to guarantee that states could not restrict the constitutional rights of citizens and businesses. 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. Those companies filed suit, claiming that the law violated the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which stated that "no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States."

Miller upheld the Louisiana monopoly law, ruling that the Privileges and Immunities Clause had a limited effect because it only reached privileges and immunities guaranteed by U.S. citizenship, not state citizenship. The law in question concerned state rights; therefore, the Fourteenth Amendment had no effect. In Miller's view, the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to grant former slaves legal equality, and not to grant expanded rights to the general population. In addition, Miller was concerned that a broad interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment would give too much power to the federal government and that it could distort the concept of federalism, which grants the states a large measure of power and autonomy.

Having set the standard for interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment, Miller and most members of the Court followed it during the 1870s and 1880s. Miller and the Court struck down state-sponsored racial discrimination under the amendment but refused to do the same to private discrimination, most notably in the civil rights cases, 109 U.S. 3, 3 S. Ct. 18, 27 L. Ed. 835 (1883). In these cases, the Court held that federal laws that banned private discrimination

in public transportation and public accommodation were unconstitutional because the Fourteenth Amendment only reaches state-enacted discrimination.

In a nonjudicial role, Miller served on the electoral commission that counted the electoral votes in the deadlocked and disputed presidential election of 1876 between rutherford b. hayes and samuel j. tilden. During the 1880s, some Republican leaders promoted Miller as a presidential candidate, but nothing came of it.

"It does not … follow, that when a word was used in a statute … seventy years since, that it must be held to include everything to which the same word is applied at the present day."
—Samuel Miller

Miller died on October 13, 1890, in Washington, D.C.

further readings

Fairman, Charles. 2002. Mr. Justice Miller and the Supreme Court, 1862-1890. Union, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange.

Hall, Kermit L., ed. 1992. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Ross, Michael A. 2003. Justice of Shattered Dreams: Samuel Freeman Miller and the Supreme Court During the Civil War Era. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press.


States' Rights.

Samuel Freeman Miller

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Samuel Freeman Miller

Samuel Freeman Miller (1816-1890), American jurist, was an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Samuel F. Miller was born on April 5, 1816, in Richmond, Ky. He earned his medical degree at Transylvania University in 1838. While serving as a country doctor, he read law and was admitted to the bar in 1847. A Whig and a member of a Kentucky group advocating the end of slavery by gradual emancipation, Miller hoped the state constitutional convention of 1849 would advance this goal; instead, the institution of slavery was strengthened. In 1850 he left Kentucky and set up his law practice in Keokuk, Iowa.

Miller became a Republican and strongly supported Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election. When a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy occurred, lowa Republicans sought the first west-of-the-Mississippi seat. Miller, an affable politician with no experience as a judge, was appointed in July 1862.

Like his colleagues on the Court, Miller did not seek to assert leadership in the critical Reconstruction racial issues, leaving those matters to Congress. However, his opinion in the Slaughter-House Cases (1873), which sustained an act of the Louisiana Legislature regulating the butchering business in New Orleans, was a landmark in the field of civil rights. The claim was made that the 14th Amendment protected individual butchers from having to agree to the rules of a state-authorized monopoly. Miller upheld the state government, stating that the 14th Amendment pertained only to the newly freed Negroes, who needed protection.

Soon, however, those who sought to curtail the advancement of Negroes reinterpreted Miller's decision. If a state could regulate the affairs of citizens who were butchers, they could do the same for citizens who were black. Once Southern legislatures had come back into the hands of racial conservatives, the Slaughter-House doctrine became a bastion of white supremacy. In Slaughter-House Miller had, somewhat unwittingly, given a new direction to American history: Reconstruction and Negro advancement faltered, while business interests were given strong impetus. In a less ambiguous civil rights decision, Ex parte Yarbrough (1884), Miller upheld, under the 15th Amendment, the right of a Negro to vote in a Federal election.

Miller unsuccessfully sought the chief justiceship in 1873. He was considered a Republican presidential possibility in both 1880 and 1884. He married twice and was the father of two children. He died on Oct. 13, 1890, in Washington, D.C., while still serving on the bench.

Further Reading

Charles Fairman, Mr. Justice Miller and the Supreme Court, 1862-1890 (1939), is a fine, occasionally uncritical biography. Miller is somewhat overpraised by William Gillette in Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds., The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789-1969, vol. 2 (1969). □

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