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Supreme Court Justices

Joseph Story (1779 - 1845)

Joseph Story was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts on September 18, 1779. In 1801, Story became a member of the bar. Story served as a member of the lower house in the Massachusetts legislature from 1805-11, and in Congress as a Democratic-Republican Congressman in 1808-09. In 1810, Justice William Cushing died, creating a New England vacancy on the Supreme Court. President James Madison turned to the 32-year old Story only after his first three choices declined the nomination. Story is the second youngest person to be appointed to the Court. Story remained a member of the Court until his death on September 10, 1845. Although appointed as a Democratic-Republican, Story's views were largely consistent with those of the Federalist Chief Justice, John Marshall. The first important opinion delivered by Story was Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, (1816). With Marshall recusing himself because of his interest in the litigation, Story upheld the constitutionality of Section 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which permitted the Supreme Court to review the opinions of state courts. In Dartmouth College v. Woodward, (1819), Story wrote a concurring opinion suggesting that Marshall's broad claim that the Contracts Clause barred regulation of companies chartered by the state did not account for the state inserting a "reservation" clause allowing the legislature to later amend the charter of the corporation. In the Charles River Bridge litigation  (1837), Story found himself in the dissent, as newly-confirmed Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney held that a state charter did not impliedly grant the Charles River Bridge Company a monopoly. Story concluded that the company's property rights were to be strictly protected. One of Story's most important opinions was in Swift v. Tyson (1842). In Swift, Story held that parties to civil litigation in federal court would use general common law rather than the law existing in the state or states in which the dispute arose. This case dramatically expanded federal court jurisdiction. The Supreme Court overruled Swift in 1938 in Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins (1938), in which positivist conceptions of law triumphed over a type of natural law. A year before Swift, Story wrote one of seven opinions in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1841), a case concerning the right of Pennsylvania to prosecute a "slave-catcher" who had taken an alleged fugitive slave from Pennsylvania without first obtaining official permission to do so. The Court was fractured, and Story's opinion held that state personal liberty laws were subordinate to federal law guaranteeing the return of fugitive slaves to their owners. Story also concluded that states were not required to participate in the process of returning fugitive slaves (the "rendition" process), which resulted in the nationalization of the slavery issue.

Story was the Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University from 1829 to his death, and is credited with popularizing the teaching of law in a university setting. He also wrote nine Commentaries on the law, including the three-volume Commentaries on the Constitution, a text still occasionally cited by the Court.

Story died peacefully, a devout Unitarian. He married Mary Story on December 9, 1804. She died six months later. He married Sarah Wetmore in August 1808. Five of their children died in childhood. His son William Wetmore Story wrote a biography of his father.

Further reading: R. Kent Newmyer, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: Statesman of the New Republic (1986); Gerald T. Dunne, Justice Joseph Story and the Rise of the Supreme Court (1970); G. Edward White, The Marshall Court & Cultural Change, 1815-35 (abr. ed. paper 1991).