Todd, Thomas (1765–1826)

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TODD, THOMAS (1765–1826)

Thomas Todd served as a Justice of the United States Supreme Court for nearly nineteen years, but he had only a small impact on the Court's decisions. Born into a fairly prominent Virginia family, he was orphaned at an early age. Because the bulk of his father's estate went to his eldest brother, he was forced to fend for himself. Following a short enlistment in the army during the Revolutionary War he went to Liberty Hall in Lexington, Virginia (later Washington and Lee University), where he studied the classics and mathematics. Todd then entered the household of his cousin Harry Innes, an accomplished lawyer and respected member of the Virginia legislature, where he served as a tutor in return for room and board. In 1784 Innes and his family removed to Kentucky where he became a judge, and Todd accompanied them. Through his cousin's political connections Todd quickly became involved in the movement to make Kentucky a separate state, serving as secretary and clerk for the various conventions that were called, and helped to write Kentucky's first constitution in 1792.

Admitted to the bar in 1788, Todd developed a lucrative law practice, with a specialty in land titles. During the 1790s he served as secretary to the Kentucky legislature and as clerk to the federal district court. In 1799 he was appointed judge of that court, and five years later he became chief judge. In 1807 Congress increased the number of United States Supreme Court Justices from five to six in order to accommodate the newly created western circuit (Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee) and to resolve the special problems in land law arising there. As this was Todd's area of expertise and because Todd was popular with the congressmen from the western states, President thomas jefferson appointed him to the newly created post.

Although a Republican, Todd invariably supported the strongly nationalist and probusiness decisions of the marshall court. Reportedly he was opposed to the Supreme Court's ruling in dartmouth college v. woodward (1819), but he was absent when it was handed down. In fact, bad health combined with the difficulties of riding the western circuit forced him to miss many of the Supreme Court sessions. He wrote only fourteen decisions, eleven for the majority, two concurring, and one dissenting in the relatively unimportant case of Finley v. Lynn (1810). With the exception of his last opinion, Riggs v. Taylor (1824), which dealt with an evidentiary problem, all his opinions dealt with problems involving land titles. He remained active in various local and state civic affairs until his death.

Richard E. Ellis


Israel, Fred L. 1969 Thomas Todd. Pages 407–412 in Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds., Justices of the Supreme Court, 1789–1969. New York: Chelsea House.