Wheaton, Henry

As the first officially appointed Supreme Court reporter, Wheaton virtually created the office. He displayed common prejudices of his times, and his reports were often verbose and tardy, but his thorough knowledge of law and cordial relationships with the justices set positive and practical precedents.

A graduate of Rhode Island College (later Brown University), Wheaton had distinguished careers in diplomacy and political science in addition to law. He served as a charg d’affairs to Denmark and Prussia, negotiated a tariff treaty, and wrote a well-received volume on international law.

It was as Supreme Court reporter,Reporters, Supreme Court however, that Wheaton made his greatest contribution to American jurisprudence. The position paid one thousand dollars a year, a low salary that Wheaton expected to augment through the sale of his court writings, which he deemed to be his private property. Unfortunately for him, however, his successor in office, Richard PetersPeters, Richard, considered all court publishings to be part of the public domain, and Peters made abridged versions of Wheaton’s writings freely available to the public. The outraged Wheaton sued Peters, and in Wheaton v. Peters[case]Wheaton v. Peters[Wheaton v. Peters]Copyright;Wheaton v. Peters[Wheaton v. Peters] (1834), the Court upheld Peters’s views on the papers.

This decision was indicative of the democratization and growing sense of public inclusion in government of the Jacksonian era. It made it possible for the poor to have ready access to official court records and therefore the opportunity for greater understanding and impact. Interestingly, despite his eloquence, intelligence, and writing ability, Wheaton’s primary contribution to Court history could be, arguably, instigating a very noteworthy but financially ruinous, lawsuit.

Jackson, Andrew

Reporters, Supreme Court

United States Reports