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Supreme Court Justices

Stephen Field (1816-1899)

Stephen Field was born in Connecticut on November 4, 1816. He was the son of David Dudley Field, a Congregationalist minister, and Submit Dickinson. Field lived in Asia Minor (now Turkey) with his sister and her husband as a teen. He entered Williams College at 17, from which he graduated four years later. He then read law in the office of his older brother, also named David Dudley Field, in 1837. Field practiced law with David Dudley Field until 1848. (David Dudley Field was a prominent antebellum legal reformer, whose major effort work was a revision of New York's law of civil procedure, which is known as the "Field Code.") Field moved to California in 1849 during its Gold Rush. California became an American state in 1850 as part of the Compromise of 1850. Field was elected to the new state legislature, and, borrowing from his brother, urged the adoption of the Field Code. Field was defeated in his run for the state Senate in 1851, and returned to the practice of law. In 1857, Field was elected to the Supreme Court of California, where he remained until he was appointed to the Supreme Court by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, after Congress added a 10th seat to the Court.

In 1873, Field dissented in the Slaughterhouse Cases, urging the Court protect private property through an expansive interpretation of the due process clause. In Munn v. Illinois, decided in 1877, Field dissented from the Court's holding that property "affected with a public interest" could be subject to price regulation. Field was one of five Justices to serve on the Electoral Commission of 1877, which declared in 8-7 votes that the Republican electoral votes would be counted, thus providing Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes a one-vote victory over Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden in the 1876 presidential election. Field, whose brother David temporarily served as Senator from New York to aid the New Yorker Tilden in this dispute, voted for Tilden in the Commission, and refused to attend Hayes's inauguration.

During his last years on the Court, Field served with his nephew, David Brewer, who was the child of Field's Christian missionary sister and brother-in-law. Field was determined to serve more years on the Court than John Marshall's 33 years, and so refused to quit the Court even though he was not performing his share of the Court's work, and even though he was asked by other members of the Court to resign. After eclipsing John Marshall's length of service, Field resigned in 1897. (This record length of service was later broken by William O. Douglas.) He returned to religion in his last years, and died in April 1899, at age 82.

Further reading: Paul Kens, Justice Stephen Field: Shaping Liberty from the Gold Rush to the Gilded Age.