With the recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court has a vacancy that may not be filled until 2017. Meanwhile, the political hubbub associated with the issue will likely influence the November presidential election.
But it was not always so complicated and contentious.
In early 1863, President Abraham Lincoln asked for and received congressional support to increase the Supreme Court from nine members to ten. In particular, he wanted to appoint someone from California in order to guarantee the state’s continued allegiance to the Union during the Civil War.
Among the men Lincoln consulted with as he narrowed the field of possible nominees was Congressman Aaron Sargent from Nevada City, then serving the final weeks of his first term in the House of Representatives.
Sargent recommended that Lincoln name Stephen Johnson Field –– the man who campaigned here in 1850 after California was granted statehood, promising that if he became our first state assemblyman he would design a new county to be called Nevada County and promised that Nevada City would become the county seat. (In 1850, Nevada County was part of Yuba County and Marysville was the county seat).
Field won the election. And shortly after the Marysville attorney took the oath of office, he kept his campaign pledge and introduced the bill that created Nevada County and established Nevada City as the county seat.
Beginning in the 1850s, when Sargent was a lawyer here and Field practiced law in Yuba County, the two men developed a cordial personal relationship. So it was no surprise that Sargent would suggest to Lincoln that he nominate his friend –– especially since Field was at that time Chief Justice of the California State Supreme Court.
Lincoln and Sargent were Republicans and Field a Democrat. But he was a Democrat from New England who steadfastly supported the Union.
Field was the perfect nominee to be confirmed by Democrats and Republicans alike. but there was a glitch: Lincoln told Sargent he wanted to appoint a federal judge, not a state judge –– even if that state judge happened to be Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court.
Fortunately, Sargent saw a solution to the problem.
In February 1863 with Lincoln’s support, Sargent introduced a bill appointing Field a federal circuit court judge for California. The bill was quickly adopted and signed by Lincoln. Field, however, said that while he appreciated Sargent’s gesture and Lincoln’s support, he believed he was already amply qualified to serve on the U. S. Supreme Court.
Lincoln soon agreed.
On March 6 –– before he had even taken the oath of office as a federal circuit court judge –– the man who created Nevada County and made sure Nevada City was the county seat, became Lincoln’s nominee for the expanded, 10-member Supreme Court.
March 6, 1863, was a Friday.
Two business days later, the U. S. Senate confirmed the appointment and, at his request, Field was administered the oath of office on May 20, his father’s 82nd birthday.
When Stephen Field resigned on Dec. 1, 1897, he was the longest-serving justice in the history of the court –– a distinction later eclipsed only by Justice William O. Douglas.
In his letter of resignation to President McKinley, Field noted that the Supreme Court has no legislative power, nor can it appropriate money.
“It carries neither the purse nor the sword,” he said. “But it possesses the power of declaring the law, and in that is found the safeguard which keeps the whole mighty fabric of law from rushing to destruction.”
Stephen Johnson Field, born in Connecticut on Nov. 4, 1816, died April 9, 1899 , in Washington, D.C., and is buried there at Rock Creek Cemetery.
Steve Cottrell is a historian, a former city councilman and mayor, and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing email@example.com.
Stephen Johnson Field (1816-1899) served 34 years on the U.S. Supreme Court. He also introduced the bill that led to the creation of Nevada County and made Nevada City the county seat