Cranch, William (1779–1855)

views updated

CRANCH, WILLIAM (1779–1855)

President john adams in March 1801 commissioned his nephew, William Cranch, assistant judge of the newly created Circuit Court for the district of columbia. President thomas jefferson in 1806 surprised Cranch, a loyal Federalist, by elevating him to chief judge, a post he filled until his death, half a century later.

Cranch simultaneously undertook the unofficial position of reporter of the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States. His nine volumes of reports, for which he derived compensation at public sale, covered the period from the August Term, 1801, to the February Term, 1815. The role of the law reporter in Cranch's time commanded professional respect and even glamour. These reports, which added luster to the judge's reputation, received favorable comment, even from Jeffersonian opponents.

Cranch's first major constitutional opinion, United States v. Bollman et al. (1807), stressed the independence and power of the federal judiciary, themes that pervaded his other major opinions. President Jefferson in early 1807 had sought a bench warrant for the arrest of Erik Bollman and Samuel Swartwout on charges of treason in the Burr Conspiracy. Cranch dissented from the decision by the court's other two judges to issue the warrant. He took exception to the English doctrine of constructive treason. He also rejected the proposition that an executive communication from the President, without either an oath or affirmation, established sufficient probability of treasonous activity.

Three decades later Cranch spoke for a unanimous court in upholding the power of the judiciary to intervene in executive affairs. United States ex rel. Stokes v. Kendall (1837) stemmed from an alleged debt due Stokes and others for services they claimed to have rendered to the Post Office. When Postmaster General Amos Kendall refused to pay, despite congressional direction to do so, Stokes sought a writ of mandamus. Although no circuit court had ever issued such a writ against the executive branch, Cranch held that his court could do so. He found that the judicial power could properly issue a writ to command performance of a purely ministerial function by the head of an executive department.

Cranch remained a thoroughgoing Federalist long after that party ceased to exist. His opinions powerfully affirmed the role of the federal judiciary. His most important legacy was the establishment of the Circuit Court and its successors in the District of Columbia as the major forums in which to adjudicate causes involving executive departments and agencies.

Kermit L. Hall


Carnel, William F. 1901 Life and Times of William Cranch, Judge of the District Circuit Court, 1801–1855. Records of the Columbia Historical Society 5:294–310.