Log In

Stephen Johnson Field Edit Profile

judge , Lawyer

Stephen Johnson Field was an American jurist. He was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from March 10, 1863, to December 1, 1897. Prior to this appointment, he was the fifth Chief Justice of California.


Stephen Johnson Field was born on November 4, 1816, in Haddam, Connecticut, the sixth of nine children in the family of David Dudley Field, a Congregationalist minister, and his wife, Submit Dickinson Field. He grew up in Connecticut and later Massachusetts, where his family moved when he was three years old.


At the age of 13, Field traveled to present-day Turkey, where he lived for two and a half years with his sister and brother-in-law, who were missionaries. After his return, he attended Williams College in Massachusetts, from which he graduated first in his class in 1837. He then began the study of law with his older brother David Dudley Field, Jr., who was a prominent lawyer in New York at this time and in the early stages of a campaign for legal and judicial reforms that would make him famous in his own right. Thereafter, Stephen continued his legal studies in the office of the state’s attorney general, John Van Burcn. He was admitted to the bar in 1841 and spent the first seven years of his practice in a partnership with his brother. In 1848, though, he left the partnership to travel with his family to Europe. When he returned, news of the gold rush in California tempted him to try his fortune there. Thus, in December 1849 he arrived in San Francisco with little money but a boundless ambition to forge a prosperous future for himself.


Choosing not to settle in San Francisco, Field traveled instead 100 miles inland to Marysville, a rude assortment of tents and shacks and the occasional adobe hut sufficient to shelter the settlement’s 600 or so inhabitants. The transplanted New York lawyer and world traveler immediately convinced his new neighbors to appoint him town alcalde, a position of Spanish legal origin that combined the offices of mayor and judge. His tenure as alcalde proved short-lived, however. In 1850 the ratification of California’s state constitution created a new set of local political offices, and Field returned to the practice of law. Almost immediately, he exhibited a facility he would possess throughout his life—that of making enemies. Under the new constitutional system, Field’s judicial duties in Marysville had been assumed by district judge William R. Turner. The first time Field the lawyer appeared before Turner the judge, a fiery confrontation between the two men won for Field a fine, a two-day imprisonment, and the loss of his license to practice law in California. After persuading the California Supreme Court to reverse Turner’s decision, Field launched an editorial tirade against the judge in a local newspaper, and Turner again stripped him of his license. But Field found relief from the order a second time with the California Supreme Court. Blood was bad enough between the two men for Turner to threaten to cut off Field’s cars, causing the latter to arm himself with pistols and a Bowie knife. Finally, Field won a seat in the California legislature and had his revenge: He sponsored legislation that created a new judicial district in the California northwest and exiled Turner to the post. While in the legislature, Field was also instrumental in causing California to adopt a variety of legal reforms that had been championed by his brother in New York.

After an unsuccessful bid to win a seat in the California state senate in 1851, Field returned to the private practice of law. In 1857 he made an equally unsuccessful attempt to win the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, but won election that same year to the California Supreme Court, thus launching a 40-year career as a judge. Field proved to be a talented judge, adept at navigating the intersection between arcane features of Mexican land law and the seven-year-old California constitution. During his early years on the bench, though, Field exhibited the first inclination toward being the guardian spirit for property rights and commercial industry. He wrote an opinion for the court holding that the right to the gold and silver on property did not belong to the state but to the property owner. He also developed lasting friendships with California businessmen such as Leland Stanford.

Two other important events marked the years Stephen Field spent on the California Supreme Court. In 1859 he married Sue Virginia Swearingen, and though their union would produce no children, it lasted until Field’s death 40 years later. Also in 1859, Field became chief justice of the California Supreme Court. David S. Terry, who had been chief justice, resigned from die court to engage in a duel with David C. Broderick, a close friend of Field. Broderick died as a result of a mortal wound he received in the duel and his death fueled bitterness between Field and Terry diat would not be extinguished until Terry died violently 30 years later at Field’s feet.

The outbreak of the Civil War encouraged Congress to create a 10th seat on the U.S. Supreme Court to be held by a justice from the Pacific states. In part, Congress hoped to secure the loyalty of California and Oregon to the Union by this move. Field, in spite of having cultivated more than his share of enemies during his years in California, was nevertheless the chief contender for the new position. He was a Democrat, but he was outspokenly loyal to the Union. With the unanimous support of the California congressional delegation, of his brother David, and of tycoon Leland Stanford, Field re-ceived President Abraham Lincoln’s nomination to the Supreme Court on March 6, 1863. The Senate quickly confirmed the appointment, and on May 20,1863, Field began what would become tire longest tenure of service by any justice of the U.S. Supreme Court to that date.

Field managed to remain prominent in the public eye even when he was not sitting on the bench. He was one of the five justices who served on the commission appointed by Congress to decide the disputed presidential elec-tion of 1876. Field, like every other member of the commission, voted along strict party lines and saw his party’s candidate, Samuel Tilden, who had received the greater popular vote, lose to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. This result caused great consternation for Field, and he refused to attend Hayes’s inauguration.

The following decade saw Field capture public attention again as the result of a long- running feud with his predecessor as chief justice of the California Supreme Court, David S. Terry. Terry was the attorney and eventually the husband of Sarah Hill, a woman whose case appeared before Field in his role as a circuit court judge. When Field announced a decision in the case that included unfriendly comments about Hill’s character, she and her husband, Terry, created such a storm of protest in the courtroom diat Field ordered them jailed. In the aftermath, word spread that Terry had threatened Field’s life. The next time Field returned to California to perform his circuit-riding duties, a deputy marshal, David Neagle, was assigned to protect him. It happened that Field encountered Terry in a restaurant, and when Terry struck Field, the marshal—believing Terry to be reaching for a weapon—shot him dead. The matter finally landed before the U.S. Supreme Court. After a California officer arrested Neagle, the latter protested in federal court that he had been protecting Field at the order of the U.S. attorney general and therefore could not be prosecuted under state law. The Supreme Court (with Field recusing himself from the decision) agreed in In re Neagle(1890).

The 1880s were years of political disappointment for Field. Twice—in 1880 and 1884—his name was featured as a possible presidential candidate. Even more significant, in 1888 Chief Justice Morrison Waite died, and Field expected that President Grover Cleveland would elevate him to the Supreme Court’s chief seat. But the president appointed Melville Fuller instead. Denied this advancement, Field remained on the Court as an associate justice. By the mid-1890s his health had begun to fail, but he continued to serve, though without the energy of his former days. He undoubtedly found some pleasure in sitting on the Court with his nephew, David Brewer, who was appointed in 1890.

Justice Field lingered on the Court to claim one final distinction: that of serving longer than any other justice to that date. By 1896 his colleagues on the Court had concluded that Field no longer possessed the mental powers necessary to do the work of a justice and appointed Justice John Marshall Harlan to ask Field to resign. Field himself had once undertaken just such a delicate mission to seek die resignation of Justice Robert Grier. When Harlan reminded him of this, Field is reported to have replied, “Yes, and a dirtier day’s work I never did in my life!” He finally agreed to resign, effective December 1, 1897, thus managing to serve almost 35 years, longer than any justice before and second only to Justice William O. Douglas in the 20th century.


His years on the California Supreme Court had tutored him in the possibilities of applying a recently adopted state constitution to the practical exigencies of the day. Shortly after Field’s arrival on the Court, the country ratified a cluster of new amendments to the U.S. Constitution. In the Fourteenth Amendment, in particular, Field found a constitutional harbor for his already well-developed probusiness sensibilities. The guarantees of protection for the privileges or immunities of U.S. citizens, as well as of equal protection and due process of law, seemed to him the constitutional charter for the judiciary to vigorously police federal and state lawmakers in their attempts to harry business enterprises with burdensome legal requirements. At first, Field proved unsuccessful in persuading a majority' of the Court to a similar appreciation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s property-protecting virtues. He could only dissent, for example, when a majority of the Court adopted a cramped reading of the Fourteenth Amendment in the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873) that cast grave doubt on whether it would have any significant application outside of the context of racial discrimination. But he doggedly besieged his brethren on the Court with opinions that urged the use of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to protect property rights from state interference.

The understanding of due process that Field championed is often referred to as the doctrine of “substantive due process,” and reads the text of the Fourteenth Amendment to require that laws infringing on “life, liberty', or property'” be reasonable. In Munn v. Illinois (1877), for example, he dissented from the Court’s decision upholding a state’s power to regulate grain elevator rates. He insisted that such regulations amount to a deprivation of property' without due process of law. Field’s persistence eventually paid off. By die 1890s tiie Court had finally come round to Field’s appreciation of the due process clause as a barrier against unreasonable attempts by states to regulate businesses and property. More than any other justice, Field presided over the marriage of laissez-faire economic policy and the Constitution. Curiously, though, Field’s expansive interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause to vindicate property rights was not paralleled by a similar expansiveness in the use of tiie amendment to protect the civil rights of African Americans. He refused to join in the majority’s finding in Ex parte Virginia (1880) that the amendment guaranteed the rights of blacks to serve on juries. To the contrary, Field insisted that the Fourteenth Amendment does not assure the right of individuals to “participate in the administration of the state’s laws” or “to discharge any duties of public trust.”


In 1859 he married Sue Virginia Swearingen, and though their union would produce no children, it lasted until Field’s death 40 years later.

Sue Virginia Swearingen - United States