Justice Benjamin Curtis

Justice Benjamin Curtis joined the U.S. Supreme Court on October 10, 1851, replacing Justice Levi Woodbury. Curtis was born on November 4, 1809 in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard College (now Harvard University), graduating in 1829. Curtis then received his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1832. He would become the first Supreme Court Justice to have earned a formal law degree.

Curtis practiced law in a private firm in Boston after graduating from law school. He played a role in Commonwealth v. Aves, a lawsuit in a Massachusetts state court that addressed the question of when a slave voluntarily brought into a free state gained their freedom. Ruling against Curtis’ client, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found that a slave in this situation gained their freedom immediately upon arrival.

In 1849, Curtis won a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Two years later, Massachusetts attorney and politician Daniel Webster (then a U.S. Senator) urged President Millard Fillmore to add Curtis to the Supreme Court. On September 22, 1851, Fillmore appointed Curtis during a recess of the Senate, and he took the judicial oath in the following month. Fillmore formally nominated him on December 11, 1851, and the Senate confirmed him nine days later.

Despite his outstanding legal talent, Curtis stayed on the Court for less than six years. His most notable contribution was the decision in Cooley v. Board of Wardens, interpreting the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Curtis was one of just two Justices who dissented from the infamous decision in the Dred Scott case, and he resigned soon afterward. The internal discord on the Court following the Dred Scott decision is often cited as a reason for his resignation. (A personal conflict between Curtis and Chief Justice Roger Taney reportedly arose from the case.) However, in letters to friends, Curtis mentioned that he resigned largely because his salary was too small and did not allow him to support his family.

Curtis left the court on September 30, 1857 and was replaced by Justice Nathan Clifford. Again practicing law in Boston, he argued 22 cases before the Supreme Court. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson retained Curtis as his lead defense attorney in his impeachment trial. Curtis obtained an acquittal for Johnson, allowing him to complete his term in office. Johnson then sought to reward him with the post of U.S. Attorney General, but Curtis declined. When Chief Justice Salmon Portland Chase died in 1873, some observers advocated for Curtis to replace him. Curtis died on September 15, 1874 in Newport, Rhode Island.

Selected Opinions by Justice Curtis:

Cooley v. Board of Wardens (1852)

Topic: Powers of Congress

The mere grant of the commercial power to Congress does not forbid the states from passing laws to regulate pilotage. The power to regulate commerce includes various subjects, upon some of which there should be a uniform rule and upon others different rules in different localities. The power is exclusive in Congress in the former but not the latter class.