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Supreme Court Justices

Joseph Bradley (1813-1892)

Joseph Bradley was born in upstate New York on March 14, 1813. His father was a farmer, and Bradley was the oldest of eleven (11) children. Bradley read law after graduating from Rutgers College, and began practicing law in New Jersey. He married Mary Hornblower, the daughter of the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Bradley was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1870 by Ulysses S. Grant. One of his first votes was to declare constitutional the Legal Tender Act, which declare lawful the repayment of debts in greenbacks rather than in gold. Creditors feared repayment in greenbacks because they believed that it did not hold its nominal value as did gold. The Act was held unconstitutional in 1870 by a vote of 4-3, a decision that was overturned in 1871, after Bradley and William Strong joined the Court.

In 1873, Bradley dissented in the Slaughterhouse Cases. He objected to the Court's decision to interpret the privileges and immunities clause of the 14th Amendment in such a narrow fashion, and his dissent, along with the dissent of Justice Field, augured the rise of substantive due process. Bradley is credited, however, with providing Chief Justice Waite with the phrase, "affected with a public interest," which the Court used to justify Illinois' regulation of grain elevators against a substantive due process challenge in Munn v. Illinois. Bradley joined the dissent of Justice Stephen Field in Munn.

Bradley next played a decisive role in the disputed presidential election of 1876. The Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, had received fewer popular votes than the Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden. Tilden was one electoral vote from a majority, but the reconstruction states of Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana all sent in dueling electoral votes. In Florida, for example, the early count had Tilden ahead by a couple of hundred votes, and the Republican party was soon on its way to minority status. However, in late 1876 it continued to control the Florida canvassing board and most other state offices. On November 27, 1876, the board, leaving out two Democratic precincts in Baker County, gave Hayes a 43 vote margin. By December 6, the official vote gave Hayes a 924 vote margin (23,843-22,919). Democrats argued that the board should have just counted, not decided which ballots to accept, and that counting would have given Tilden a 1,700 margin. The Florida Supreme Court ordered the canvassing board to meet on December 27, but it did not to do so. Consequently, the Florida Attorney General, a Democrat, appeared alone and certified the Democratic electors. The board met shortly thereafter, and certified the Republican electors. The Florida Supreme Court rejected the second certification on January 1, 1877. The next day, the Democratic governor and the Democratic legislature passed legislation validating a Democratic victory. However, the Florida Supreme Court decided not to rule on a Democrat challenge to the Republican certificate until June, which left the matter to the Joint Congressional Committee. Two sets of returns were sent to the House of Representatives from those states, and the Democratic majority in the House (169-109) at first refused to go into joint session with the Republican Senate (45-29, and two others) to conduct the count. The problem for the Democrats was that the 12th Amendment appeared to permit the Vice President (the President of the Senate), to count the electoral votes. That was H. Wilson, Grant’s second Vice President. Congress then decided to appoint, through the adoption of an act, an Electoral Commission to resolve the disputed electoral votes. The Commission consisted of 10 Congressmen, evenly divided between the parties (3 House Democrats and 2 Senate Democrats), and five Supreme Court justices. Four of the justices were to pick the fifth justice. The four justices were two Democrats, Nathan Clifford (of Maine) and Stephen Field (of California), and two Republicans, Samuel Miller (of Iowa) and William Strong (of Pennsylvania). It was understood by the Democrats that the fifth justice to be picked would be Justice David Davis of Illinois, professedly independent, but whose formerly Republican leanings had disappeared in his desire to become President. Some Republicans believed Davis would accept a Democratic nomination to be President, and so they nominated him on January 17, 1877, to run against the Democratic candidate for Senator in Illinois. The next week, Tilden’s nephew, William Pelton, convinced some Democrats in the Illinois legislature to vote for Davis, making him the Senator from Illinois. As a result, Davis refused to become the fifteenth member of the Electoral Commission. The justices then picked Bradley, an "independent" Republican from New Jersey. Bradley decided that the Commission (and the Congress) had no authority to look behind the electoral ballots sent in by the states, and therefore the Republican ballots sent in by the still-Reconstructed states of South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida were to be counted. The Democrats in the House refused to accept this judgment at first, because all ballots were decided by a vote of 8-7. Two days before Hayes’ inauguration, the Democrats agreed to accept his victory, after reaching a behind the scenes agreement with Hayes that those Reconstructed states (in particular, Louisiana and South Carolina) would be turned over to the "Redeemers," that the South would receive some economic largesse (like the Texas and Pacific Railroad bill, which never passed) from the Hayes administration and that the Hayes administration would name a prominent Democrat to his cabinet (which he did, along with naming a number of "reform," i.e., non-Radical, Republicans). Hayes, two months after inauguration, removed all but a handful of soldiers from South Carolina and Louisiana, effectively ending Reconstruction. The end of Reconstruction meant the end of black political and civic involvement in the South until the Civil Rights Era of the late 1950s and 1960s.

In 1883, Bradley wrote the Court's decision in The Civil Rights Cases, in which the Court held that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional. Bradley's opinion noted that the 14th Amendment applied to state action, and after the opinion created a stark division between public (state) and private (non-state) action, held that the Act impermissibly regulated private conduct, which made the Act unconstitutional. This decision effectively ended any judicial enforcement of Reconstruction.

Bradley died in early January 1892.