Field, Stephen J. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

For thirty-four years, Field used his position as a Supreme Court justice to effect a broad interpretation of the Constitution in restricting government regulation of property rights.

Born in Connecticut, Field was the son of a clergyman. His brother, David Dudley Field, was a prominent Democratic politician and lawyer in New York. Stephen followed a less conventional path. After earning his law license, he moved to California in 1849 at the height of the gold rush. There he established his reputation as a judge on the state supreme court, creating legal order out of the chaos of the booming state.Property rightsLincoln, Abraham;nominations to the CourtProperty rights

Stephen J. Field

(Library of Congress)

His prominent position earned him the attention of President Abraham Lincoln when the U.S. Congress created a tenth seat on the Supreme Court. Lincoln recognized the political rewards of appointing a prowar Democrat from one of the fastest expanding states in the union. The president also knew he would receive the gratitude of the powerful David Dudley Field if his brother Stephen were appointed.

Upon his confirmation to the Court in 1863, Field performed as Lincoln had hoped, supporting the Civil WarCivil War effort and the expansion of presidential power during the era. He was less friendly to executive prerogatives in the postwar period; in Ex parte Garland[case]Garland, Ex parte[Garland, Ex parte] (1867) and Cummings v. Missouri[case]Cummings v. Missouri[Cummings v. Missouri] (1867), he voted to strike down loyalty oaths for former confederates seeking political office.

Economic Rights

Field was also protective of individual economic rights. He broadly interpreted the newly ratified Fourteenth Amendment,Fourteenth Amendment arguing that the equal protection, due process, and privileges and immunities clauses protected property owners from state economic regulation. His support for property rights was seen in the first of the Legal Tender Cases (1870)[case]Legal Tender Cases[Legal Tender Cases] as he voted to strike down the federal government’s issuing of paper money to finance the Civil War. Field agreed that the inflation created by the printing of money represented the government taking property without compensation. In the second of the Legal Tender Cases (1871), Field dissented as the Court reversed course and upheld the Legal Tender Act.

Field’s support of economic rights continued. In the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873),[case]Slaughterhouse Cases[Slaughterhouse Cases] a narrow 5-4 majority ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment did not prevent the government from granting monopolies. Field dissented on the basis that the amendment’s privileges and immunities clause protected the right of an individual to work at a trade without government interference.

The philosophy was reiterated by Field over the next quarter century. Dissenting from such cases as Munn v. Illinois (1877),[case]Munn v. Illinois[Munn v. Illinois] which upheld the regulation of grain elevators, Field maintained the broad view that the Fourteenth Amendment could be used to protect the property rights of individuals and corporations.

Field continued to air his views before the Court, vigorously dissenting whenever the Court upheld state regulation of business. Eventually his dogged determination and changes in the Court’s personnel produced a shift in doctrine. In Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co.[case]Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co.[Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co.] (1886), the Court ruled that corporations were recognized as persons under the Fourteenth Amendment. This advanced Field’s argument that the amendment should protect corporate property rights. It also opened the door for the Court to use the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to protect those rights.

The Terry Affair

Before Field could witness his final victory, he was embroiled in a personal controversy that made him the only justice to ever experience an assassination attempt. The Terry affair, as it became known, centered on a former California judge, David S. Terry.Terry, David S. When Field made a ruling detrimental to Terry’s wife, the California judge threatened the justice’s life. In response, the federal government provided a marshal as Field’s personal bodyguard when he traveled to California. That marshal, David Neagle, and Field were confronted by Terry. A struggle followed and Neagle shot Terry dead. Neagle was arrested, producing a legal case that made its way to the Supreme Court. With Field not participating, the justices ruled in In re Neagle (1890)[case]Neagle, In re[Neagle, In re] that the marshal could not be prosecuted under state law because he was acting under the direction of federal law in protecting Field.

The Terry affair did not dampen Field’s determination to use the Constitution to protect property rights. It was during the 1890’s that Field’s views took center stage, dominating the Court’s decisions. Between 1895 and 1897 Field’s colleagues followed his lead in striking down laws that restricted economic liberty.

Field’s Success

In United States v. E. C. Knight Co. (1895),[case]E. C. Knight Co., United States v.[E. C. Knight Co., United States v.] the Court narrowed the scope of antitrust laws, preventing the government from breaking up monopolies that involved the manufacturing of goods. This prevented antitrust prosecutions of corporate monopolies, a result favored by Field. In Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co. (1895),[case]Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.[Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.] the Court struck down the federal income tax as unconstitutional. Field wrote a separate opinion in the case, denouncing the income taxIncome tax as a move toward communism and warning against legislation that might cause class warfare. Finally in one of the last decisions in which Field participated, Allgeyer v. Louisiana (1897),[case]Allgeyer v. Louisiana[Allgeyer v. Louisiana] the Court recognized a freedom to contract. In Allgeyer, a unanimous Court agreed that the Fourteenth Amendment protected an individual’s right to make contracts without government interference.

Field’s victory in Allgeyer marked the end of his judicial career. Throughout the 1890’s his mental abilities had declined, and he was unable to fully function on the Court. He retired on December 1, 1897, having served longer than any other justice up to that time. During his thirty-four years, he was able to move the Court toward a dynamic reading of the Fourteenth Amendment that protected economic rights. His career marked the success of a man whose strength of character and determination allowed him to reshape American law.Field, Stephen J.

Further Reading
  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Ely, James. The Chief Justiceship of Melville Fuller. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
  • Ely, James. The Fuller Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
  • Gillman, Howard. The Constitution Besieged. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.
  • Huebner, Timothy S. The Taney Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Kens, Paul. Justice Stephen Field. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1997.
  • Lurie, Jonathan. The Chase Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.
  • Swisher, Carl Brent. Stephen J. Field: Craftsman of the Law. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1963.

Allgeyer v. Louisiana

E. C. Knight Co., United States v.

Fourteenth Amendment

Lincoln, Abraham

Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.

Presidential powers

Property rights

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