Justice David Davis

Justice David Davis joined the U.S. Supreme Court on December 10, 1862, replacing Justice John Archibald Campbell. Davis was born on March 9, 1815 in Maryland. He attended Kenyon College in Ohio before receiving his legal education at Yale. Davis graduated from Yale in 1835 and then practiced law in Illinois.

Briefly a member of the Illinois state legislature, Davis became a judge in the Illinois state court system in 1848. He would remain in that post until he joined the Supreme Court. Davis assisted President Abraham Lincoln during his 1860 presidential campaign on the eve of the Civil War. On October 17, 1862, Lincoln appointed Davis to the Supreme Court during a recess of the Senate. Lincoln formally nominated him on December 1, and the Senate confirmed him on December 8. Davis took the judicial oath two days later and would spend the next 14 years on the Court.

Perhaps the most notable opinion that Davis authored came in Ex parte Milligan a year after the Civil War ended. Writing for the Court, Davis found that the Constitution prevents military tribunals from trying civilians during a time when ordinary civil courts are functioning. The decision has gone down as a statement of the limits on military power in American democracy.

Unlike most Supreme Court Justices, Davis continued to harbor political aspirations. He received a nomination for President in 1872 from the Labor Reform party, although he eventually withdrew his candidacy. Davis left the Supreme Court on March 4, 1877, when he joined the U.S. Senate. Justice John Marshall Harlan replaced him on the Court.

Davis served one term in the Senate, during which he acted as President pro tempore from October 1881 to March 1883. (This is the second-highest-ranking official in the Senate after the U.S. Vice President.) Davis chose not to pursue reelection for a second term and returned to Illinois. He died on June 26, 1886 in Bloomington, Illinois.

Registered as an independent, Davis nearly played the decisive role in the political controversy that ended the Reconstruction era. After the 1876 presidential election, Congress set up a 15-member commission to decide whether to award 20 contested electoral votes to Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes or Democrat candidate Samuel Tilden. The commission would consist of five Senators, five members of the House of Representatives, and five Supreme Court Justices. As originally conceived, there would be a total of seven Republicans and seven Democrats, together with Davis.

Had everything gone as planned, Davis would have essentially decided the Presidency singlehandedly, since the Republican and Democrat members of the commission were expected to vote along party lines. Davis resigned from the Supreme Court to join the Senate at this stage, though, and Justice Joseph Bradley replaced him on the commission. Bradley gave the Republicans a majority, and Hayes thus received the disputed votes and the Presidency.

Selected Opinions by Justice Davis:

Ex parte Milligan (1866)

Topic: Role of Courts

A citizen not connected with the military service and a resident in a state where the courts are open and in the proper exercise of their jurisdiction cannot, even when the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus is suspended, be tried, convicted, or sentenced otherwise than by the ordinary courts of law.