Field, Stephen J. (1816–1899)

2012-06-22 08:58:15

One of the most colorful individuals to ever serve on the Supreme Court, Stephen J. Field led major shift in constitutional jurisprudence. He pioneered a broad reading of the Fourteenth Amendment in an effort to define and preserve liberty, and especially economic freedom, by restraining the power of government.

Field was born in Haddam, Connecticut, the sixth child of a Congregationalist minister. Although Field never shared his father’s religious commitment, a strong sense of moral certitude permeated his judicial opinions. Reared in Connecticut, Field spent two and a half years in present-day Turkey before beginning study at Williams College. Field graduated first in his class at Williams in 1837. Thereafter, he moved to New York City to study law with his brother, David Dudley Field, a prominent attorney and legal reformer. Field practiced law with his brother in New York City until 1848. A year later he moved to California, where gold had been recently discovered. Field, however, had no intention of prospecting for gold. Rather, he saw the gold rush as a chance to begin a law practice. After brief service as alcalde (an office combining functions of mayor and judge) of Marysville and as a member of the California legislature, Field unsuccessfully sought election to the U.S. Senate. He then developed a lucrative private practice of law in Marysville until he was elected as a Democrat to the California Supreme Court in 1857. The Court heard a large number of disputes over land ownership, and Field helped to develop a consistent body of law in this area. On the outbreak of the Civil War, Field was a Union loyalist.

In 1863, Congress revamped the structure of the federal judiciary and created a new spot on the U.S. Supreme Court for a justice who would have responsibility for the isolated Pacific Coast federal judicial circuit. President Abraham Lincoln was anxious to name a Californian for political and geographical reasons, and he selected Field in part to strengthen California’s attachment to the Union. Easily confirmed by the Senate, Field served as a justice for thirty-four years and ranks second among justices for longevity of service.

Although Field generally voted to uphold the actions of the Lincoln administration in the Civil War, he soon demonstrated a libertarian bent. Field joined the opinion in Ex Parte Milligan (1866), which invalidated the trial of civilians by the military when civil courts were open. Writing for the Court, Field struck down Civil War loyalty oaths in Cummings v. Missouri (1867) and Ex Parte Garland (1867). He reasoned that such oaths, designed to keep ex- Confederates out of public offices and certain professions, constituted unconstitutional bills of attainder and ex post facto laws. Field also consistently voted to curtail the confiscation of property owned by Confederate supporters. He authored a number of opinions that held particular confiscations under the Second Confiscation Act to be invalid.

Anti-Chinese sentiments on the West Coast produced numerous laws discriminating against Chinese immigrants. Although not fully consistent in cases involving Chinese immigrants, Field was often sympathetic to their plight. In Ah Kow v. Nunan (1879), decided by Field on the federal circuit bench, he invalidated the San Francisco queue ordinance intended to harass the Chinese as discriminatory class legislation barred by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Field is best known for a series of dissenting opinions in which he asserted that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment placed substantive, as well as procedural, checks on state authority. In the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), for example, Field argued in dissent that the Amendment protected the rights of persons to engage in lawful occupations. Field, again in dissent, amplified his views in Munn v. Illinois (1877), a case involving state-imposed rate regulation. He vigorously assailed the notion that government could control the right of owners to charge for the use of their property absent special circumstances. Field also broadly defined liberty as more than freedom from restraint, and as encompassing the right to pursue ordinary trades. During the 1880s Field’s views gradually gained ascendancy on the Supreme Court.

Property and liberty were closely linked in Field’s jurisprudence. He was primarily concerned to safeguard economic liberties of individuals against stateimposed regulations. In his view, governmental power could not be legitimately used to interfere in the market or redistribute wealth. Voting with the majority in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co. (1895) to invalidate the 1894 income tax, Field expressed concern that the levy constituted class legislation, because it imposed burdens based on wealth. In Allgeyer v. Louisiana (1897), decided at the end of Field’s tenure on the bench, the Court built on his theory that the due process clause Fourteenth Amendment protected the right to pursue lawful callings to recognize the right to make contracts without unreasonable state interference.

Field, however, was never a doctrinaire laissezfairest or a one-sided champion of business interests. He recognized that states had the authority under the police power to protect the health and safety of their residents. In Missouri Pacific Railway Company v. Humes (1885), for instance, he spoke for the Court in an opinion upholding state railroad fencing laws as a means to prevent accidents. Similarly, Field was often supportive of claims of injured industrial workers. He validated state laws that abrogated the fellowservant rule for railroad employees in Missouri Pacific Railway Company v. Mackey (1888). Field also believed that states possessed wide power to promote public morals. He readily sustained laws regulating the sale of alcoholic beverages and controlling lotteries. Writing for the Court in Davis v. Beason (1890), he affirmed a territorial law that denied suffrage to those who belonged to a group advocating polygamy and concluded that the First Amendment protected religious beliefs but not conduct.

Field’s emphasis on the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as a vehicle to protect property rights and limit government influenced Supreme Court decisions for decades after his retirement. In 1937, however, the Court abandoned the due process review of economic legislation and fashioned a dichotomy between property rights and other personal liberties. Nonetheless, the justices continue to invoke substantive due process to safeguard noneconomic interests, a development that partially reflects Field’s jurisprudence.


References and Further Reading

  • Ely, James W., Jr. The Chief Justiceship of Melville W. Fuller, 1888–1910. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
  • Field, Stephen J. Personal Reminiscences of Early Days in California. 1877 Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1968.
  • Kens, Paul. Justice Stephen Field: Shaping Liberty from the Gold Rush to the Gilded Age. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.
  • McCurdy, Charles W. ‘‘Justice Field and the Jurisprudence of Government-Business Relations: Some Parameters of Laissez-Faire Constitutionalism.’’ Journal of American History 61 (1975): 970–1005.
  • Swisher, Carl Brent. Stephen J. Field: Craftsman of the Law. Washington: Brookings Institute, 1930. Reprint: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Ah Kow v. Nunan, 12 F. Cases 252 (C.C.C. Cal. 1879)
  • Allgeyer v. Louisiana, 165 U.S. 578 (1897)
  • Cummings v. Missouri, 71 U.S. 277 (1867)
  • Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333 (1890)
  • Garland, Ex Parte, 71 U.S. 333 (1867)
  • Milligan, Ex Parte, 71 U.S. 2 (1866)
  • Missouri Pacific Railway Company v. Humes, 115 U.S. 512 (1885)
  • Missouri Pacific Railway Company v. Mackey, 127 U.S. 205 (1888)
  • Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113 (1877)
  • Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co., 157 U.S. 429 (1895)
  • Slaughterhouse Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1873)