Ellsworth Court (1796–1800)

2012-06-18 10:04:43

The ‘‘Ellsworth Court’’ is the title attributed to the Supreme Court during the tenure of Oliver Ellsworth as chief justice of the United States, from March 1796 to December 1800. Ellsworth, of Connecticut, was the de facto leader of the Federalist faction in Congress prior to his appointment. In addition, Ellsworth had been instrumental in the passage of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that established the basic structure of the federal judiciary. Ellsworth was the third chief justice of the United States, attaining the office after John Rutledge failed to achieve confirmation after becoming chief justice by recess appointment.

Prominent associate justices to serve during Ellsworth’s time as chief justice include William Cushing, Samuel Chase, James Iredell, William Paterson, Bushrod Washington, and James Wilson. Justice Alfred Moore also served briefly during this period, resigning due to ill health and dissatisfaction with his duties. As with the Jay Court, each of these jurists was selected by President George Washington and was considered sympathetic to Federalist principles. The Ellsworth Court met twice annually in Philadelphia, which was then the temporary national capital.

Unlike the contemporary Supreme Court, the Ellsworth Court consisted of only six justices. The composition of the Supreme Court during Ellsworth’s tenure was geographically balanced with members drawn from each region of the United States. This was the norm for the early Supreme Court, as it facilitated ‘‘circuit riding’’ duties and stifled disputes among sectional interests.

Circuit riding was a hallmark of the Supreme Court in its first century, requiring justices to hold court alongside district judges twice each year in a judicial circuit assigned to them. Justices rode circuit each year following the February and August terms of the Supreme Court. Many justices found circuit riding objectionable as it required extensive travel for weeks or months at a time. Although this aspect of the justices’ duties provoked discontent, their repeated appeals to Congress yielded little relief.

Although it remained relatively small, the workload of the Supreme Court under Ellsworth’s leadership was greater than during the tenures of John Jay and John Rutledge (1789–1795). The institution’s docket during Ellsworth’s tenure was generally dominated by admiralty and diversity cases, many of which resulted from contemporaneous American treaty obligations. The years 1796 and 1797 in particular saw escalation in the Supreme Court’s workload, with more than fifty cases considered in 1796 and nearly thirty in 1797. Along with maritime and economic disputes, the justices faced some controversies with ramifications for American civil liberties. The most significant of these concerned seditious libel and the legitimacy of criminal prosecutions under federal common law.

Federal indictments for sedition and acts of rebellion had occurred as early as 1792, but these issues became particularly important during Ellsworth’s tenure. Domestic furor over Jay’s Treaty (1795– 1796) and strained relations with France created a volatile political climate. Following the scandalous XYZ Affair, the federal government prepared for war with France and sought to discourage domestic dissent. This contributed to the passage of the Sedition Act (1798). This statute clearly stipulated that sedition was a criminal act, as it had been considered by jurists previously on the basis of common law. This proved controversial, with some legislators asserting that the act merely codified existing common law, and others believing it to be an infringement of Americans’ civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.

The Supreme Court justices enforced the Sedition Act in the circuit courts, with Chief Justice Ellsworth advocating the position that the act was in agreement with constitutional principles and the common law. The other justices were sympathetic with this position and enforced the Sedition Act, sometimes vigorously. Both ordinary citizens and members of the press were prosecuted under the Act, most often for criticism of President John Adams and the Federalists in Congress. The Sedition Act came to be viewed as a tool of the Federalists to thwart dissent and became a contentious issue in the election of 1800. Both the Sedition Act and the notion of federal commonlaw crimes were attacked by Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. The Supreme Court never addressed the Sedition Act directly, as it expired in 1801 and was not renewed by the Democratic- Republicans after their electoral victory in 1800.

Interestingly, the Ellsworth Court preceded the Supreme Court’s 1803 decision in Marbury v. Madison (1803), but its justices apparently agreed on the legitimacy of judicial review. The justices clearly considered the constitutionality of a federal tax in Hylton v. United States (1796), although they did not strike down the relevant statute. In addition, the Court’s decision in Ware v. Hylton (1796) provided perhaps the Supreme Court’s earliest expression of the supremacy of federal law. While Ware dealt specifically with a conflict between a Virginia statute and a federal treaty with Britain, the invocation of the Supremacy Clause was an important declaration of the precedence of federal over state laws.

A notable institutional development during this period was the decline of in seriatim opinions under Ellsworth’s leadership. Unlike his predecessors as chief justice, Ellsworth employed the prestige of his position to craft a single majority opinion. While in contrast to English tradition, this custom had been followed on the Connecticut court on which Ellsworth had previously served. While the practice of justices publishing in seriatim opinions did not diminish completely until the tenure of Chief Justice John Marshall (1801–1835), the Ellsworth Court issued consolidated majority opinions in every case in which the chief justice participated.

Chief Justice Ellsworth retained his position until December 1800, when he resigned after four and a half years of judicial service. Prior to his resignation, Ellsworth had been appointed as minister to France in 1799–1800 and was instrumental in the effort to thwart a naval war with America’s former ally. While serving abroad Ellsworth’s health declined considerably, and it is believed to have contributed substantially to his decision to step down. Ellsworth was succeeded as chief justice by John Marshall of Virginia, whose own contributions to the legal and political development of the Supreme Court would be immense.


References and Further Reading

Casto, William R. The Supreme Court in the Early Republic: The Chief Justiceships of John Jay and Oliver Ellsworth. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

Gerber, Scott D., ed. Seriatim: The Supreme Court Before John Marshall. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Goebel, Julius Jr. History of the Supreme Court of the United States. Volume I: Antecedents and Beginnings to 1801. New York: Macmillan Company, 1971.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Hylton v. United States, 3 Dall. 171 (1796)
  • Judiciary Act of 1789, Act of September 24, 1789, 1 Stat. 73
  • Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803)
  • Sedition Act of 1798, Act of July 14, 1798, 1 Stat. 596
  • Ware v. Hylton, 3 Dall. 199 (1796)

See also Alien and Sedition Acts (1798); Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. 386 (1798); Chase, Samuel; Common Law or Statute; Freedom of Speech and Press under the Constitution: Early History (1791–1917); Jefferson, Thomas; Judicial Review; Marshall, John; National Security and Freedom of Speech; Natural Law, 18th Century Understanding; Seditious Libel