Blatchford, Samuel (1820–1893)

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Samuel Blatchford had been a federal judge for fifteen years when chester a. arthur appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1882. Like Horace Gray, Arthur's other appointee, Blatchford had initially made his mark on the profession as a reporter. Beginning in 1852, he published a volume of admiralty cases decided in the Southern District of New York, a volume of civil war prize cases from the same jurisdiction, and twenty-four volumes of Second Circuit decisions. He continued to report Second Circuit opinions following his appointment as district judge (1867), circuit judge (1872), and circuit justice. Blatchford's expertise in admiralty, patent, and construction of the national banking acts made him the Supreme Court's workhorse; he wrote 435 majority opinions during his eleven-year tenure, almost twenty percent more than his proportional share.

Two personal characteristics shaped Blatchford's modest contributions to American constitutional development. He was singularly uninterested in questions of statecraft, political economy, and philosophy; he was so committed to a collective conception of the judicial function that he dissented less frequently then any Justice since the era of john marshall. These attitudes, coupled with Chief Justice morrison r. waite's disinclination to assign him cases involving constitutional interpretation, kept Blatchford out of the limelight during his first eight years on the Court. But his compromising tendency prompted melville w. fuller, Waite's successor, to regard him as the logical spokesman for narrow, unstable majorities in two controversial fourteenth amendment cases. Blatchford's lackluster performances in chicago, milwaukee and st. paul railway v. minnesota (1890) and Budd v. New York (1892) underscored his stolid approach to constitutional law.

At issue in the Chicago, Milwaukee case was the validity of an 1887 Minnesota statute establishing a railroad commission authorized to set maximum rate schedules that would be "final and conclusive." Because this scheme left no role for courts in reviewing railroad rates, the briefs focused on two previous statements by Chief Justice Waite. In Munn v. Illinois (1877) Waite had explained that "the controlling fact" in rate controversies was "the power to regulate at all." And he had added that "for protection against abuses by legislatures the people must resort to the polls, not the courts." In the Railroad Commission Cases (1886), however, Justice stanley matthews had persuaded Waite to acknowledge that "under the pretense of regulating fares and freights, the State cannot require a railroad corporation to carry persons or property without reward; neither can it do that which in law amounts to a taking of private property for public use without just compensation, or without due process of law." Speaking for a 6–3 majority, Blatchford concluded that Waite's majority opinion in the Railroad Commission Cases presupposed at least some role for the courts; it followed that the Minnesota law could not be sustained. At one point Blatchford came very close to equating due process with judicial process, but he cautiously retreated and ultimately said nothing about either the scope of judicial review or its rationale, which went beyond Waite's enigmatic obiter dictum. Only the dissent by joseph p. bradley forthrightly summarized what seemed to be the majority's premise. "In effect," he complained, the Court had now held "that the judiciary, and not the legislature, is the final arbiter in the regulation of fares and freights."

Budd brought both of the central issues in Munn back to the Court for reconsideration. Speaking again for a majority of six, Blatchford reiterated the Court's conclusion that bulk storage and handling of grain was a "business affected with a public interest. Consequently rates of charge for these services might be regulated by state governments. But what of Chicago, Milwaukee, which Bradley had described as "practically overrul[ing]" Munn? The two cases were "quite distinguishable," Blatchford insisted, "for in this instance the rate of charges is fixed directly by the legislature." Blatchford apparently regarded this formulation as an appropriate means of reconciling all previous decisions on the subject. But the distinction between legislative and commission regulation was so artificial that Justice john marshall harlan simply ignored it in his characteristically robust opinion for the Court in smyth v. ames (1898). Seymour D. Thompson, editor of the American Law Review, was less gracious. "It was no great disparagement of him," Thompson remarked in a critical appraisal of Blatchford's constitutional law opinions, "to say that he was probably a better reporter than Judge."

Charles W. Mc c urdy


Paul, Arnold 1969 Samuel Blatchford. Pages 1401–1414 in Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds., The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions. New York: Chelsea House.