Portrait of Stephen Johnson Field.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society. Stephen Johnson Field
b. November 4, 1816, Haddam, CT
d. April 9, 1899, Washington, D.C.
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court
The son of a Congregationalist minister, Stephen Johnson Field grew up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, graduated from Williams College in 1837, and practiced law in New York City. In 1849 he set out for California looking for gold, bought land in the mining area along the Sacramento River, and became mayor of Marysville, California. He was elected to the California assembly in 1850 and to the California Supreme Court in 1857.
Field was determined and vengeful when crossed, and he had a talent for making enemies. An early opponent of his wrote that "if analyzed," Field's life would be "found to be one series of little-mindedness, meanlinesses, of braggadocio, pusillanimity, and contemptible vanity."
In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed him to the newly created tenth seat on the Supreme Court, in part because of his staunch support of the Union cause.
Field was an ardent proponent of free enterprise unchecked by government regulation. In 1868 the Fourteenth Amendment extended citizenship to all, regardless of race, and guaranteed broad rights to everyone. Field soon used the amendment's Due Process Clause to protect the property rights of businesses while opposing its use to defend individuals from the abuses of the powerful. He was often attacked as an apologist for the wealthy establishment, and his opinions were grounded more in his beliefs about natural law than they were in a close reading of the Constitution.
Field's controversial character made headlines in the case of David Terry, a one-time colleague of his on the California Supreme Court. Terry had married Sarah Hill, who was suing a silver millionaire, claiming he had been her first husband. Field heard the case in his capacity as judge on the Ninth Circuit and ruled against Mrs. Terry. In the course of his ruling he delivered from the bench a crude portrait of Mrs. Terry's somewhat colorful past. She and her husband protested and a scuffle ensued. The Terrys were both jailed for contempt of court. In 1889 Field encountered them in the dining car of a train bound for San Francisco. David Terry struck Field twice on the side of the head and was shot dead by Field's bodyguard. Mrs. Terry filed a complaint and Field's bodyguard was arrested, but the U.S. Attorney General's office successfully pressured local authorities for his release. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, where, with Field recusing himself, it was decided in his favor. Field subsequently used his influence to thwart the careers of some who had supported the Terrys. As one person observed, "When Field hates, he hates for keeps."
Stubborn and vindictive, with a keen mind, Field was a formidable opponent, and his decisions defending private and business property rights came to dominate the Court in the years following 1870.