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Supreme Court Justices

James Iredell (1751 - 1799)

James Iredell was born and raised in England. At the age of 17, he emigrated from England to North Carolina after relatives secured a position for him in a colonial office. Iredell read law under Samuel Johnston, later a governor of North Carolina. In 1773, Iredell married Johnston's daughter Hannah, with whom he had 3 children. Iredell began practicing law in North Carolina at age 19. Iredell was a fervent supporter of revolution, and later urged North Carolina to ratify the Constitution. North Carolina initially rejected the Constitution, and ratified it only after Congress had proposed amending it by adding a Bill of Rights.

Iredell held a number of political and judicial posts in North Carolina, including following Alfred Moore as attorney general of North Carolina. George Washington nominated Iredell to the Supreme Court in early 1790, and the Senate confirmed him two days later. In Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), the Court held that a state may be sued in federal court. Iredell dissented. The reaction against Chisholm would lead to its reversal by the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment in 1798. Possibly Iredell's most important opinion was in Calder v. Bull (1798). The issue was whether an act of the Connecticut legislature overturning a judicial decision violated the Constitution because it was an ex post facto law, which states were forbidden to enact pursuant to Art. I, section 9, clause 3 of the Constitution. The Court held was that the ex post facto clause applied to criminal cases only, so the legislature's action was not constitutionally prohibited. More importantly, Calder raised the issue whether "principles of natural justice" constituted law. In Iredell's view, only those actions by a state that explicitly violated a textual provision of the Constitution could be declared void. "The principles of natural justice are regulated by no fixed standard; the ablest and the purest men have differed upon the subject; and all the court could properly say, in such an event, would be, that the legislature (possessed of an equal right of opinion) had passed an act which, in the opinion of the judges, was inconsistent with the abstract principles of natural justice." This positivistic understanding of the authority of the judiciary differed greatly from that taken by Justice Samuel Chase. For Chase, "An act of the Legislature (for I cannot call it a law) contrary to the great first principles of the social compact, cannot be considered a rightful exercise of legislative authority." Thus, a law contrary to the principles of natural justice was void. In subsequent constitutional history, the Court has explicitly adopted Iredell's approach, but has implicitly smuggled in Chase's views on a number of occasions. 

In October 1799, shortly after turning 45, Iredell died.