Justice Samuel Nelson

Justice Samuel Nelson joined the U.S. Supreme Court on February 27, 1845, replacing Justice Smith Thompson. Nelson was born on November 10, 1792 in Washington County, New York. He graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont in 1813 and returned to New York to study law. In 1817, Nelson was admitted to the New York bar and entered private practice.

Nelson served as a presidential elector in the 1820 election, and he was appointed as postmaster of Cortland, New York in the same year. He also participated in the New York Constitutional Convention in 1821. Nelson served as a judge on the New York Sixth Circuit Court from 1823 until 1831, when he joined the New York Supreme Court of Judicature (now the New York Supreme Court). Nelson eventually became the Chief Justice of that Court.

On February 4, 1845, President John Tyler nominated Nelson to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on February 14, and he took the judicial oath about two weeks later. Nelson would spend over a quarter of a century on the Court.

Despite his long tenure, Nelson did not produce many opinions of lasting significance. Writing for the Court in Hotchkiss v. Greenwood, he laid the foundation for the non-obviousness requirement in patent law, which Congress would add to the U.S. Code in the 1950s. In Georgia v. Stanton, he discussed the political question doctrine, which limits the power of courts.

Nelson concurred with the infamous Dred Scott decision, although he would have decided the case on narrower grounds. During the Civil War, he wrote a dissent arguing that the blockade of Confederate ports ordered by President Abraham Lincoln was unconstitutional. Toward the end of his tenure, he served on a commission that sought to resolve claims by the U.S. against Great Britain for damage caused by Confederate warships built in British shipyards.

Nelson left the Supreme Court on November 28, 1872 and died barely a year later on December 13, 1873 in Cooperstown, New York. Justice Ward Hunt replaced him on the Court.

Selected Opinions by Justice Nelson:

Georgia v. Stanton (1868)

Topic: Role of Courts

A bill filed by one of the states to enjoin the Secretary of War and other executive officers from carrying into execution certain acts of Congress on the grounds that this would annul and abolish the existing government of the state calls for a judgment on a political question and cannot be entertained by the Supreme Court.