Time after time in Supreme Court history we see what a bad idea lifetime appointments to the highest Court is. Age, and the infirmities that inevitably accompany it, sooner of later fell even the brightest of Justices. Unfortunately too many Justices attempt to stay beyond their time. Such was the case with Stephen J. Fielding, who was the last Justice to serve on the Supreme Court appointed by Abraham Lincoln. Chief Justice of California and a Democrat, Lincoln appointed him to the Supreme Court as an act of bipartisanship towards pro-Union Democrats, and to help further bind the far off state of California to the Union.
Fielding went on to have the second longest tenure on the Court, exceeded by that only of William O. Douglas in the last century. He wrote 544 opinions surpassed in number only by those written by Justice Samuel Miller, a contemporary of his on the Court. By the winter of 1896-97, Field was visibly failing, intermittently demonstrating senility, and his colleagues realized that he needed to retire. The gentlemanly Justice John Marshall Harlan, who would serve on the Court until he died at age 78 in 1914, was delegated the unenviable task of trying to persuade Field to retire, a task later written about by Chief Justice Charles Hughes who heard the details from Justice Harlan
It occurred to other members of the Court that Justice Field had served on a committee which waited on Justice Grier to suggest his retirement and it was thought that recalling the incident to his memory might aid him to decide to retire. Justice Harlan made the suggestion.
He went over to Justice Field, who was sitting alone on a seat in the Robing Room apparently oblivious of his surroundings, and after arousing him gradually approached the question, asking if he did not recall how anxious the Court had been with respect to Justice Grier’s condition and the feeling of the other justices that in his own interest and in that of the Court he should give up his work. Justice Harlan asked if Justice Field did not remember what had been said. The old man listened, gradually became alert and finally, with eyes blazing with the old fire of his youth, burst out:
Yes! And a dirtier day’s work I never did in my life!
That was the end of that effort…’
Field ultimately did retire on December 1, 1897. He died on April 9, 1899, age 82.