Justice Noah Haynes Swayne

Justice Noah Haynes Swayne joined the U.S. Supreme Court on January 27, 1862, replacing Justice John McLean. Swayne was born on December 7, 1804 in the northwestern corner of Virginia. He is the only Quaker to become a Supreme Court Justice. Swayne initially studied medicine but turned to a legal career and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1823. Soon afterward, his opposition to slavery led him to move to Ohio, where he began to practice law.

Swayne then held a series of public offices. He served on the Ohio state legislature and was appointed by President Andrew Jackson as the U.S. Attorney for Ohio. Swayne joined the Republican Party soon after it was founded, and he would eventually become the first Republican Justice on the Supreme Court. He also developed a close friendship with Supreme Court Justice John McLean, a fellow Republican.

McLean suggested to Republican President Abraham Lincoln that he should nominate Swayne for McLean’s seat upon his death. This happened in April 1861, and Lincoln duly nominated Swayne on January 21, 1862. The Senate confirmed him in a 38-1 vote on January 24, and he took the judicial oath three days later. Swayne aspired to become Chief Justice. He sought this position when Chief Justice Roger Taney died in 1864, and again when Chief Justice Salmon Portland Chase died in 1873. However, this goal eluded him both times.

Swayne served on the Court for nearly two decades, yet he did not leave a significant impact. Instead of writing opinions, he generally joined majority or dissenting opinions written by other Justices. Perhaps his greatest contribution consisted of upholding war measures ordered by President Lincoln during the Civil War. These had little relevance outside the immediate context.

Declining health afflicted Swayne during his later years on the Court, and he eventually retired on January 24, 1881. Before he left, Swayne extracted a promise from President Rutherford B. Hayes that he would fill his seat with his friend Stanley Matthews, another Ohio attorney. Hayes honored this promise, as Lincoln had honored his promise to McLean to nominate Swayne. On June 8, 1884, Swayne died in New York City. He is buried in Washington, D.C.

Selected Opinions by Justice Swayne:

Coffin v. Ogden (1873)

Topic: Patents

In an infringement lawsuit, the defense of a prior invention was established when the defendant proved that the alleged prior invention was complete and capable of working, it was known to at least five people and probably others, and it was put in use, tested, and successful.