Justice William Johnson

Justice William Johnson joined the U.S. Supreme Court on May 7, 1804, replacing Justice Alfred Moore. Johnson was born on December 27, 1771 near Charleston, South Carolina. He attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and graduated in 1790 at the top of his class. Johnson was admitted to the South Carolina bar three years later after studying law with notable attorney Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

He joined the South Carolina state legislature in 1794 and later became Speaker of the House. At the end of 1799, he was elected to the South Carolina Court of General Sessions and Common Pleas. Johnson would serve there for about four years.

On March 22, 1804, President Thomas Jefferson nominated Johnson to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on March 24, and he took the judicial oath about six weeks later at the age of just 32. His three-decade tenure on the Court fell entirely within the era of Chief Justice John Marshall.

Johnson was the first Justice who was not a Federalist, and he became the first major dissenter in Supreme Court history. He wrote about half of the dissents during the Marshall era. For example, he penned a solo dissent in the 1824 case of Osborn v. Bank of the United States, in which Marshall wrote for the Court in expanding the jurisdiction of federal courts.

However, Johnson joined the majority in several key early cases that bolstered the powers of Congress and the Supreme Court, such as McCulloch v. Maryland, Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, and Cohens v. Virginia. In a concurrence in the early Commerce Clause case of Gibbons v. Ogden, he took an even broader view of federal power than did Marshall. Johnson penned perhaps his most notable majority opinion in U.S. v. Hudson, finding that lower federal courts could not exercise common-law jurisdiction in criminal cases.

Johnson died on August 4, 1834 in New York City after undergoing jaw surgery. Justice James Moore Wayne replaced him on the Supreme Court.