Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth

Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth joined the U.S. Supreme Court on March 8, 1796, replacing Chief Justice John Rutledge. Ellsworth was born on April 29, 1745 near Hartford, Connecticut. He initially pursued his education at Yale but transferred to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), from which he graduated in 1766. Ellsworth was admitted to the bar in 1771. He later served as state attorney for Hartford County and participated in the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. During the 1780s, Ellsworth also joined the Connecticut Governor’s Council and served as a judge in the state court system.

Ellsworth left a major impact on the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He helped devise the Great Compromise, also known as the Connecticut Compromise because Ellsworth and Roger Sherman, its other sponsor, both hailed from Connecticut. This resolved the conflict between a group of delegates who favored equal representation for each state in the national legislature and a group who urged that each state should be represented in proportion to its population. The Great Compromise set up the bicameral legislature that we know today, with a Senate where states have equal representation and a House of Representatives where the population model applies.

In addition, Ellsworth served on the Committee of Detail, which prepared the first draft of the Constitution. Although he did not sign the final version of the Constitution, he vigorously argued for its ratification at the Connecticut convention in 1788. Ellsworth then became one of the first two Connecticut Senators in the U.S. Senate. In that role, he crafted the Judiciary Act of 1789, which defined the structure and jurisdiction of federal courts.

On March 3, 1796, President George Washington nominated Ellsworth to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on March 4 in a 21-1 vote, and he took the judicial oath four days later. Far more memorable for political than judicial achievements, Ellsworth would serve on the Court for less than five years.

Ellsworth wrote for the Court in New York v. Connecticut, a 1799 decision that was the first occasion on which the Court heard a dispute between two states. He also urged his colleagues to present a unified "opinion of the Court" rather than a series of seriatim opinions. (In seriatim opinions, each Justice offered their opinion separately, leading to decisions that were very long and sometimes hard to interpret.) However, the shift to "opinions of the Court" did not fully take root until the Marshall Court that followed him.

Toward the end of his tenure on the Court, Ellsworth also served as an envoy to France. He left the Court on December 15, 1800 and was replaced by Chief Justice John Marshall. Ellsworth again served on the Connecticut Governor’s Council after his retirement from the Court. He died on November 26, 1807 in his hometown in Connecticut.