Uncommon letter from the Chief Justice to an Associate Justice of the High Court, at a time when Marshall's court was under siege from a partisan Congress.
Justice William Paterson was a senior Associate Justice in the Marshall Supreme Court. Ten years older than Marshall, Paterson had impressive legal credentials. He had been New Jersey’s first Attorney General in 1776, a delegate to the Constitution Convention in Philadelphia and the author of the “New Jersey plan” there, a US...
Justice William Paterson was a senior Associate Justice in the Marshall Supreme Court. Ten years older than Marshall, Paterson had impressive legal credentials. He had been New Jersey’s first Attorney General in 1776, a delegate to the Constitution Convention in Philadelphia and the author of the “New Jersey plan” there, a US Senator in 1788, a drafter of the Judiciary Act of 1789, and then Governor of New Jersey until President Washington tapped him to sit on the Court. There had been a strong push by hard-core Federalists to make Paterson Chief Justice, but that did not materialize. As it stood, aside Justice Cushing, Paterson was second in seniority among the Associate Justices.
Supreme Court Justices of the period were required, when the Court was not in session, to oversee the circuit courts, which were organized by district. That meant traveling on circuit, which was an arduous task. Chief Justice Marshall himself was not spared. Until 1806, Paterson was assigned to the 2nd Circuit, which encompassed Connecticut, New York and Vermont. Marshall covered the 5th Circuit, which was his home state of Virginia and North Carolina.
The election of 1800, with the election of Thomas Jefferson, saw a change in power, a peaceful transition from one party to another. Before he left office, recognizing the weakening of his Federalist Party, President Adams, through the Judiciary Act of 1801, abolished the practice of Supreme Court justices riding the circuit and created a circuit court judge appointment process. Adams doled out these political appointments on his way out the door. These were the so-called Midnight Judges. But the new Secretary of State James Madison refused to follow through and effectuate the appointments. One such midnight appointee, William Marbury, took his case to the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Marshall set important Constitutional precedent in Marbury v. Madison. He held that the Supreme Court had the right to declare laws unconstitutional, and that to the extent that the Judiciary Act conflicted with the Constitution, it was void. But that in this situation, the Court had no authority to compel Madison to honor Marbury’s appointment. This set about the Court’s authority of review but also put the judges back on circuit.
A second repercussion of Marbury v. Madison was the impeachment of Supreme Court Samuel Chase. Chase had vocally attacked the Marbury case finding and as a result President Jefferson encouraged his allies in Congress to impeach Chase.
Marshall’s travel was not as arduous as others. Cushing’s coach had overturned in New England. Chase almost drowned when a ferry was swept away on the Susquehanna. This year, 1804, it was Paterson, who’s coach went over a “precipice of ten feet.” Paterson requested the right to miss the term because of his injuries, which would claim his life 2 years later. He suggested Justice Alfred Moore in North Carolina might be able to come up and handle cases in his place.
Events for Marshall came to a head on January 8, 1804, when Congressman Randolph’s petition to impeach Chase, presented on January 5, was joined by Federalist and Republicans and thereby adopted by the House. That day, Chase wrote Marshall asking for his help. And Marshall wrote to Paterson.
Autograph Letter Signed, Richmond, January 8, 1804, to Paterson, with integral address leaf in Marshall's hand. "Yesterday on my return from North Carolina I received your letter of the 31st of December & lament very sincerely the cause which will deprive us of your aid & your society at the ensuing term of the Supreme Court. I must however entreat that you will not permit your anxiety respecting your duties to expose you to the hazards which must result from your removal from home before your health shall be perfectly confirmed. I will immediately write to Mr. Moore & hope he will make a point of attending. He has sustained a very severe attack in the course of the summer, but I understand that he was perfectly recovered. With my best wishes for the restoration of your health and with affectionate and respectful esteem, John Marshall.” The letter carries Paterson's docket.
In the end, Marshall was unable to get Moore to attend, as Moore stepped down less than a month later. Without Moore and Paterson, the workload fell to Marshall, Chase, Cushing and Bushrod Washington, who convened a month later with a record 22 cases pending. The atmosphere was charged with Chase’s impeachment pending.
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