“Yes! And a dirtier day’s work I never did in my life!”

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.

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  1. High fiction alert;

    I wouldn’t put it past the Dems to, Mission Impossible, RBG with a masterful replica. I know…too much of Rod Sterling’s Night Galleries…but in this era of rotten to the core liberal politicians and their favorite prize, legalized abortion in the cross-hairs, anything is possible.

    Look for the House of Representatives to write legislation that has term limits.
    That is until the open seats start to fill with Liberals.

  2. “The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour,”

    Due to that provision of the Constitution, term limits for Federal Judges could only be imposed by a constitutional amendment.

  3. Doesn’t it feel as if control of our government is slipping further and further away from the fingers of We The People and there is very little we can do about it?

  4. One curious case recently was that of Wm. Rehnquist. He was diagnosed with an odd subtype of thyroid cancer in October 2004. Thyroid cancer is among the most readily treatable sorts of cancer, and the modal subtype can be effectively attacked even when metastatic. About 2% of all such cancers, are of the subtype Rehnquist had. It’s so unusual that internists and general practitioners will generally see no cases of it after they’ve finished their residency, and oncologists might see 3-4 cases in decades of practice. Endocrinologists might see one case a year. It’s invariably fatal and generally kills the patient in a matter of months. I can see Rehnquist delaying his resignation by a few weeks in order to avoid throwing a wild card into the presidential election. For some reason, he insisted on remaining on the court until he died, even though he was too ill to accomplish much over those 10 months. I think physicians and surgeons interviewed by the media smoked out what was up because of some unusual procedures the hospital admitted to performing, but Rehnquist never acknowledged he was a terminal patient and statements were issued on his behalf that he was receiving treatment for the cancer though all they could really give him was palliative care.

  5. Too many Judges Art just can’t imagine life off the bench. Rehnquist was 80 at the time of his death, a time of life when most people are long retired. The law can be a strange way to go through life, and judges attempting to deny mortality and stay on the bench until the Grim Reaper knocks them aside is one of the more bizarre features.

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