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.
Stephen J. Field
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 War
Field was also protective of individual economic rights. He broadly interpreted the newly ratified Fourteenth Amendment,
Field’s support of economic rights continued. In the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873),
The philosophy was reiterated by Field over the next quarter century. Dissenting from such cases as Munn v. Illinois (1877),
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.
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.
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.
In United States v. E. C. Knight Co. (1895),
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.
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.
Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.