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Chief Justice Nomination Rejected


December 15, 1795

Portrait of John Rutledge

On December 15, 1795, the Senate administered a stinging blow to one of the nation's most distinguished "founding fathers." By a vote of 10 to 14, it rejected President George Washington's nomination of South Carolina's John Rutledge to be Chief Justice of the United States.

Born to one of Charleston's elite families, John Rutledge rapidly gained political and judicial distinction during the American Revolution. At an early age, he represented South Carolina in the Stamp Act Congress and in the Continental Congress. In 1775, he helped draft the constitution for the newly formed "Republic of South Carolina" and a year later he became that republic's president. When British troops captured Charleston in 1779, the state legislature elected Rutledge governor and handed him virtually absolute power. After the war, he served as chief judge of a state court and, in 1787, played a major role in drafting the U.S. Constitution.

In recognition of these contributions, President George Washington nominated—and the Senate quickly confirmed—Rutledge as the first U.S. Supreme Court's senior associate justice. Although Rutledge accepted his commission, he failed to attend the Court's meetings and resigned in 1791 to become chief justice of a South Carolina court.

In June 1795, Rutledge offered President Washington his services as a replacement for the soon-to-retire Chief Justice John Jay. Washington readily agreed and, with the Senate in recess, promised to give Rutledge a temporary commission upon his arrival at the August session of the Supreme Court.

Several weeks after learning this, however, Rutledge complicated his confirmation chances by delivering a speech vehemently attacking the controversial Jay Treaty, which he believed to be excessively pro-British. Rutledge seemed blind to the fact that the president had supported—and the Senate had recently consented to—that difficult treaty. Many administration supporters cited this ill-timed speech as evidence of Rutledge's advancing mental incapacity. Rutledge ignored the escalating criticism and took his seat on the high court.

When the Senate convened in December, it promptly voted down his nomination. Rutledge thus became the first rejected Supreme Court nominee and the only one among the fifteen who would gain their offices through recess appointments not to be subsequently confirmed. In turning down Rutledge, the Senate made it clear that an examination of a nominee's qualifications would include his political views. Those who differed substantively from the majority of senators could expect rough going.

President Washington quickly calmed the rough waters by nominating to the Court one of the Senate’s own members, the author of the 1789 Judiciary Act, Connecticut’s Oliver Ellsworth.