Benjamin Robbins Curtis graduated from Harvard College in 1829 and went on to study law at Harvard under Justice Joseph Story, who had just been appointed professor. He practiced briefly in Northfield, Massachusetts, in 1831, and received a law degree in 1832. He moved to Boston in 1834, where he joined a law firm and became prominent in the area of commercial law. He was elected to the state legislature in 1849 and appointed chairman of the committee assigned to reform the state's legal system. The committee's bill, the Massachusetts Practice Act of 1851, passed without amendment and was considered a model of judicial reform.
In late 1851, President Millard Fillmore was persuaded by Daniel Webster (senator from Massachusetts) to nominate Curtis to the Supreme Court. Although he remained on the Court for only six years, Curtis is generally considered to have been the only outstanding justice on the Taney Court in its later years, other than Taney himself.
His opinion in the case of Cooley v. Board of Port Wardens (1852) resolved a historic controversy over federal <a>interstate commerce</a> powers, and it remains to this day an important precedent for resolving disputes in this area.
More famous in many ways was Curtis' dissenting opinion in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), in which he disagreed with the majority on almost every point. The majority in the case ruled that when the Constitution was ratified there were no African American citizens in the United States, so the Framers had never contemplated African Americans as citizens. Curtis vehemently objected, pointing out that there were African American citizens in both Northern and Southern states at the time. They were thus among the "people of the United States" that the Constitution addressed. In addition, Curtis pointed out, since the majority ruled that Scott had no standing before the Court, the Court had no right to issue a decision.
The Dred Scott decision caused so much rancor among the justices, in particular between Taney and Curtis, that he resigned from the Court six months later. Curtis is the only justice ever to resign on a matter of principle. He returned to his Boston practice and became one of the nation's leading lawyers. In the following 15 years he argued several cases before the Supreme Court. He acted as chief counsel for Andrew Johnson at the president's impeachment trial in 1868 and was able to persuade the Senate that an impeachment was a judicial, not political, act and that it required a full hearing of evidence. The precedent he set has influenced every subsequent impeachment.
Curtis was married three times and had 12 children.