Bradley, Joseph P.

As a Supreme Court justice, Bradley often dissented when the Court favored states’ rights over the power of the national government to regulate the economy. However, he voted with the majority to restrict the ability of Congress and the Constitution to protect women and African Americans from discrimination.

The eldest of twelve children born to a poor farming couple, Bradley inherited a lifelong love of learning from his parents. By the time he was sixteen, he had read most of the books in the town’s library, taught himself algebra, and become a teacher in his local school. However, it was not until he was twenty years old that he began college. Always a hardworking student with a broad range of interests, he graduated from Rutgers College in three years. Originally intending to study theology, Bradley soon turned to the study of law. After graduation, he apprenticed for the bar in the office of a Newark, New Jersey, lawyer.Grant, Ulysses S.;nominations to the Court

Joseph P. Bradley

(Library of Congress)

Soon after his admission to the bar in 1839, Bradley rose to prominence in the New Jersey legal community. He spent most of his legal career as counsel for a number of railroads, eventually becoming general counsel, secretary of the board, and a member of the Executive Committee of the Joint Companies of New Jersey (which included the Camden and Amboy Line). Although New Jersey was a predominately Democratic state, Bradley joined the new Republican Party before the Civil War (1861-1865).

Appointment to the Court

On February 7, 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Bradley and William Strong to the two vacancies on the Supreme Court created by the resignation of Justice Robert C. Grier and enactment of the Judiciary Act of 1869, which restored the Court to its pre-Civil War membership of nine. On March 21, the Senate confirmed Bradley’s nomination by a vote of forty-six to nine. He was sworn in two days later and served on the Court until January 22, 1892.

The appointments of Bradley and Strong came at a time when the Court was grappling with the important constitutional question of Congress’s power to enact the Legal Tender Act of 1862. The Act required creditors to receive paper money issued by the United States in payment of debt. Although there is no evidence that Grant appointed Bradley and Strong with this issue in mind, both of these new justices voted to uphold the constitutionality of the act.

Fourteenth Amendment and Reconstruction

During his twenty-one-year service on the Court, Bradley participated in many of the decisions that endured as bedrock principles of states’ rights. Therefore, although Bradley initially voted against the Court’s evisceration of the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, he later became a solid member of the majority, sometimes writing for the Court, in cases repudiating ReconstructionReconstruction legislation designed to protect the rights of newly freed African Americans to equality under the law. He also was a chief architect of the modern doctrine that the states are immune from suit in federal courts.

During Bradley’s service, the Court had the task of defining the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the Court’s first decision, the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), a majority of the Court severely limited the reach of the privileges and immunities clause. In dissent, Bradley contended that the clause protected businesses from unreasonable state regulations. However, in Bradwell v. Illinois[case]Bradwell v. Illinois[Bradwell v. Illinois] (1873), he voted with the majority to reject Myra Bradwell’s Fourteenth Amendment challenge to an Illinois statute that barred women from practicing law. The case is as well known for Bradley’s concurring opinion as it is for the result. Bradwell had no right to practice law, in Bradley’s view, because “[t]he paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This was the law of the Creator.”

Through a series of decisions, from 1870 to 1886, the Court contributed to the dismantling of Congress’s Reconstruction plan and to the interweaving of racial segregation into the nation’s social fabric. Bradley played a key role in these developments, generally by voting with the majority in cases such as United States v. Cruikshank[case]Cruikshank, United States v.[Cruikshank, United States v.] (1876), which limited Congress’s power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment against the states, and Baldwin v. Franks[case]Baldwin v. Franks[Baldwin v. Franks] (1876), which, along with United States v. Harris[case]Harris, United States v.[Harris, United States v.] (1882), restricted Congress’s authority to enact legislation protecting voting rights from state interference.

More specifically, Bradley helped make racial segregation immune from constitutional and congressional attack with his opinion in the Civil Rights Cases[case]Civil Rights Cases[Civil Rights Cases] (1883), holding the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. Here, Bradley argued that neither the Thirteenth nor the Fourteenth Amendment gave Congress the power to enact the statute. Private discriminationPrivate discrimination, Bradley reasoned, was not a badge or incident of slavery that Congress could outlaw without “running the slavery argument into the ground.” As to the Fourteenth Amendment, he argued, Congress could reach only discrimination carried on by the state itself, not the private acts of inns, theaters, and railroads. Bradley even suggested that the Civil Rights Act amounted to Congress treating African Americans as “the special favorite of the laws.”

State Sovereign Immunity

State sovereigntyThe civil rights of African Americans was not the only question to plague the Court in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Court also confronted the vexing question of whether the southern states could escape from their war debts in a number of cases between 1883 and 1890. Here, Bradley’s influence was large; he wrote the majority opinion for the Court in the most important of these cases, Hans v. Louisiana[case]Hans v. Louisiana[Hans v. Louisiana] (1890). Hans, which is the cornerstone of the Court’s modern Eleventh Amendment jurisprudence, stands for the proposition that the Constitution protects a state’s sovereign immunity from suit in federal court. The soundness of the history and logic Bradley employed to reach the decision in Hans was questioned by numerous constitutional scholars and even other justices of the Court.

Further Reading

  • Ely, James W., Jr. The Fuller Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Fairman, Charles. “Mr. Justice Bradley.” In Mr. Justice, edited by Allison Dunham and Phillip B. Kurland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.
  • Fairman, Charles. Reconstruction and Reunion, 1864-88, Part I. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
  • Friedman, Leon. “Joseph Bradley.” In The Justices of the Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions, edited by Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
  • Lurie, Jonathan. The Chase Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.
  • Stephenson, Donald Grier, Jr. The Waite Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.

Civil Rights Cases

Eleventh Amendment

Fourteenth Amendment

Gender issues

Legal Tender Cases

Race and discrimination


Strong, William