Bradley, Joseph P. (1813–1892)

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BRADLEY, JOSEPH P. (1813–1892)

Joseph P. Bradley's appointment to the Supreme Court in 1870 by President ulysses s. grant was seen as part of Grant's supposed court-packing scheme. But whatever shadow that event cast on Bradley's reputation rapidly disappeared. For more than two decades on the bench, he commanded almost unrivaled respect from colleagues, lawyers, and legal commentators, and over time he consistently has been ranked as one of the most influential jurists in the Court's history.

When Bradley was appointed he already was a prominent railroad lawyer and Republican activist. Indeed, friends had been advocating his appointment to the Court nearly a year before his appointment. Shortly after Grant's inauguration in 1869, the Republicans increased the size of the court from eight to nine. While Grant and Congress haggled over the selection of a new Justice, the Court decided, 4–3, that the legal tender laws were unconstitutional. Justice robert c. grier clearly was senile, and after he cast his vote against the laws his colleagues persuaded him to resign. That gave Grant two appointments and, on February 7, 1870, he nominated william strong and Bradley—and the Court almost simultaneously announced its legal tender decision.

Within a year, Bradley and Strong led a new majority to sustain the constitutionality of greenbacks (unsecured paper currency). In his concurring opinion, Bradley saw the power to emit bills of credit as the essential issue in the case, and from that he contended that "the incidental power of giving such bills the quality of legal tender follows almost as matter of course." Bradley also emphasized the government's right to maintain its existence. He insisted it would be a "great wrong" to deny Congress the asserted power, "a power to be seldom exercised, certainly; but one, the possession of which is so essential, and as it seems to me, so undoubted." (See legal tender cases.)

Three months after his appointment, Bradley conducted circuit court hearings in New Orleans where he encountered the slaughterhouse cases. He held unconstitutional the Louisiana statute authorizing a monopoly for slaughtering operations. Three years later, when the case reached the Supreme Court on appeal, Bradley dissented as the majority sustained the regulation. With Justice stephen j. field, Bradley believed that the creation of the monopoly and the impairment of existing businesses violated the privileges and immunities clause of the fourteenth amendment. Such privileges, Bradley had said earlier in his circuit court opinion, included a citizen's right to "lawful industrial pursuit—not injurious to the community—as he may see fit, without unreasonable regulation or molestation."

The antiregulatory views that Bradley advanced in Slaughterhouse did not persist as the major theme of his judicial career, as they did for Justice Field. judicial review and judicial superintendence of due process of law could be maintained, he said, in Davidson v. New Orleans (1878), "without interfering with that large discretion which every legislative power has of making wide modifications in the forms of procedure." A year earlier, Bradley had vividly demonstrated his differences with Field when he provided Chief Justice morrison r. waite with the key historical sources and principles for the public interest doctrine laid down in Munn v. Illinois (1877). (See affectation with a public interest.)

The Court largely gutted the Munn ruling when it held in Wabash, St. Louis, and Pacific Railway v. Illinois (1886) that states could not regulate interstate rates, even in the absence of congressional action. Bradley vigorously dissented, protesting that some form of regulation was necessary and that the Court had wrongly repudiated the public interest doctrine of the granger cases. Ironically, Bradley, the old railroad lawyer, found himself almost totally isolated when he dissented from the Court's finding that the judiciary, not legislatively authorized expert commissions, had the right to decide the reasonableness of railroad rates. That decision, in Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Co. v. Minnesota, (1890), marked the triumph of Field's dissenting views in Munn; yet Bradley steadfastly insisted that rate regulation "is a legislative prerogative and not a judicial one."

Bradley insisted on responsibility and accountability from the railroads in numerous ways. In New York Central R.R. v. Lockwood (1873) he wrote that railroads could not, by contract, exempt themselves from liability for negligence. "The carrier and his customer do not stand on a footing of equality," he said. In Railroad Company v. Maryland (1875) he agreed that Maryland could compel a railroad to return one-fifth of its revenue in exchange for a right of way without compromising congressional control over commerce. But Bradley found clear lines of distinction between federally chartered and state chartered railroads. When the Court, in Railroad Company v. Peniston (1873), approved Nebraska's tax of a congressionally chartered railroad, Bradley disagreed, arguing that the carrier was a federal government instrumentality; similarly, he joined Field in dissent in the sinking fund cases (1879), arguing that Congress's requirement that the Union Pacific deposit some of its earnings to repay its debt to the federal government was tantamount to the "repudiation of government obligations."

Bradley generally advocated a broad nationalist view of the commerce clause. He wrote, for example, the opinion of the Court in Robbins v. Shelby Taxing District (1887), one of the most famous of the "drummer" cases of the period, holding that discriminatory state taxation of outof-state salesmen unduly burdened interstate commerce. He also maintained that states could not tax the gross receipts of steamship companies or telegraph messages sent across state lines. Yet he steadfastly resisted the attempts of business to avoid their fair share of tax burdens, and he ruled that neither goods destined for another state nor goods that arrived at a final destination after crossing state lines were exempt from state taxing. (See state taxation of commerce.)

Despite Bradley's broad reading of the Fourteenth Amendment in the Slaughterhouse Cases, he voted with the Court majority that failed in various cases to sustain national protection of the rights of blacks. He ruled against the constitutionality of the force act of 1870 while on circuit, and the Court sustained his ruling in united states v. cruikshank (1876). He acquiesced in united states v. reese (1876), crippling enforcement of the fifteenth amendment, and in hall v. decuir (1878) he agreed that a Louisiana law prohibiting racial segregation on railroads burdened interstate commerce. Unlike that of most of his colleagues, Bradley's interpretation of the commerce power was consistent, for he dissented with john m. harlan when the Court in 1890 approved a state law requiring segregated railroad cars.

Bradley's most famous statement on racial matters came in the civil rights cases (1883). Speaking for all his colleagues save Harlan, Bradley held unconstitutional the civil rights act of 1875. He limited the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment when he wrote that it forbade only state action and not private racial discrimination. Bradley eloquently—if unfortunately—captured the national mood when he declared: "When a man has emerged from slavery, and by the aid of beneficient legislation has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws.…" Bradley concurred in bradwell v. illinois (1873), in which the Court held that Illinois had not violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when it refused to admit a woman to the bar. He stated that a woman's "natural and proper timidity" left her unprepared for many occupations, and he concluded that "the paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother." Clearly, there were limits to the liberty that Bradley had so passionately advocated in the Slaughterhouse Cases.

The variety of significant opinions by Bradley demonstrates his enormous range and influence. In boyd v. united states (1886) he established the modern fourth amendment standard for search and seizure questions, advocating a narrow scope for governmental power: "It is the duty of courts to be watchful for the constitutional rights of the citizen, and against any stealthy encroachments thereon." In collector v. day (1871) he dissented when the Court held that state officials were exempt from federal income taxes, and nearly sixty years later the Court adopted his position. He spoke for the Court in church of jesus christ of latter-day saints v. united states (1890), stipulating that forfeited Mormon property be applied to charitable uses, including the building of common schools in Utah. Finally, he helped resolve the Court's difficulties over the exercise of recently enacted jurisdiction legislation and sustained the right of federal corporations to remove their causes from state to federal courts. That opinion made possible a staggering number of new tort and corporate cases in the federal courts.

Bradley played a decisive role in the outcome of the disputed election of 1877 as he supported Rutherford B. Hayes's claims. He was the fifteenth member chosen on the Electoral Commission whose other members included seven Democrats and seven Republicans. Thus, Hayes and the Compromise of 1877 owed much to Bradley's vote.

Bradley, Field, Harlan, and samuel f. miller are the dominant figures of late nineteenth-century judicial history. Field's reputation rests on his forceful advocacy of a conservative ideology that the Court embraced but eventually repudiated. Harlan's claims center on his civil rights views. Miller's notions of judicial restraint continue to have vitality. But Bradley's range of expertise, his high technical competency, and the continuing relevance of his work arguably place him above those distinguished contemporaries. Indeed, a mere handful of Supreme Court Justices have had a comparable impact.

Stanley I. Kutler


Fairman, Charles 1950 What Makes a Great Justice? Boston University Law Review 30:49–102.

Magrath, C. Peter 1963 Morrison R. Waite: The Triumph of Character. New York: Macmillan.

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Bradley, Joseph P. (1813–1892)

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