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Kentucky by Heart: Kentucky has left major mark on history of the United States Supreme Court

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series profiling the eleven Kentuckians who have served as U.S. Supreme Court justices.

By Steve Flairty
Kentucky by Heart

When it comes to members of U.S. Supreme Court throughout our history, Kentucky has certainly been a big player. Our state has supplied eleven justices, with one being Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson. As much for my own interest as for the column, I did some research on each of them and I’d like to share.

I’ll present them from earliest to most recent, showing their service times in parentheses:

Thomas Todd (1807-1826):

Though Todd was born in Virginia, he moved to Danville in 1784 to open a law practice and served as clerk of the Kentucky House of Representatives. In 1806, Todd was appointed Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice in 1806.

His term in Kentucky was short, when on March 3, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court. His term lasted nineteen years. He wrote fourteen opinions, with one dissent. The Kentucky Encyclopedia stated that for Todd, “much of his time and energy was spent in arduous travel to circuit court in Nashville, Frankfort, and Chillicothe, Ohio.”

He died in 1826 and is buried in the Frankfort Cemetery.

Justice Robert Trimble (Unknown artist, via Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Trimble (1826-1828):

Robert Trimble, born in Kentucky’s “mother” state, Virginia, moved as a child to Clark County, Kentucky, when his father acquired the rights to 700 acres of unimproved land. Though starting his career as a schoolteacher, Trimble read law and in 1800, was admitted to the Bourbon County bar in Paris. He had a prosperous law practice and, starting in 1807, served as a representative in the Kentucky General Assembly and later in the Kentucky Court of Appeals. From there, he became the United States District Judge for the District of Kentucky, and in 1826 was nominated and confirmed as U.S. Supreme Court Justice. His tenure was short-lived however, as he died in 1828 of a “malignant bilious fever.”

Chief Justice Marshall reportedly wrote in a letter to Henry Clay of Trimble that he was “distinguished for sound sense, uprightness of intention and legal knowledge. His superior cannot be found. I wish we may find his equal.”

Trimble was buried in the Paris Cemetery. Trimble County, in the north-central part of Kentucky, is named for him.

John McLean (1829-1861):

This Supreme Court justice, chosen by President Andrew Jackson in 1829 after Justice Trimble died, was born in New Jersey but as a young boy, spent time living with his family in Nicholasville and Maysville. He was a politician and Supreme Court justice in the state of Ohio before his long term (thirty-two years) on the U.S. Supreme Court.

McLean was known as an anti-slavery advocate, and he was considered by some to be a viable candidate for the U.S. presidency. He died in Cincinnati in 1861 and is also buried there.

Samuel Freeman Miller (Image from Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Samuel Freeman Miller (1862-1890):

Miller was born in Richmond, Kentucky, and received a medical degree from Transylvania in 1938. However, law would be in his future, and he was admitted into the bar in 1847. Politically, he supported the Whigs and was a slavery abolitionist.

In 1850, he moved to Iowa, a place more sympathetic to his abolitionist views, and became involved with politics. He supported Lincoln for president in 1860, and in 1862, received a U.S. Supreme Court nomination from President Lincoln and was confirmed the same day.

Serving a twenty-eight-year term, Miller wrote an amazing 616 opinions.

While still in office, his name was mentioned as a Republican presidential candidate.

Miller died in 1890 at Washington, D.C. and is buried in Keokuk, Iowa.

John Marshall Harlan (1877-1911):

John Marshall Harlan, despite not ever holding the top position as Chief Justice, is the most celebrated of all Kentucky’s individuals who became justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, he is likely an American icon for the legacy he left in his term from 1877 to 1911.

John Marshall Harlan (Image from Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Born in 1833 some five miles west of Danville, Harlan was named by his father after Chief Justice John Marshall, who hoped for a big future for his fifth son (of nine children). John, in fact, did take an interest in governing and judicial work, and he became a lawyer and was also elected county judge of Franklin County, where his family had moved when John was seven. In 1859, he ran for the U.S. Congress but lost in a close race.

Harlan moved to Louisville in 1861 and established a law firm, but he soon began making speeches encouraging Kentucky to stand with the Union. Then he went further, raising a Union regiment which he, Colonel Harlan, commanded in battles in Mill Springs, Kentucky, and at Corinth, Mississippi. But his real military claim to fame came when his unit defeated Confederate cavalry commander John Hunt Morgan at Rolling Fork River Bridge.

Later, Harlan would be defeated twice in races for governor in 1871 and 1875, but he was a strong factor in organizing the Republican party. It was in 1877 that President Rutherford Hayes appointed him, at age 44, to the U.S. Supreme Court. He became known as “the great dissenter,” especially regarding civil rights, showing that he advocated fairness to all and was willing to act courageously. In the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson, he was the lone vote against the “separate but equal” ruling, a court decision that was de facto overturned many years later in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that separate but equal was an unconstitutional concept. During Harlan’s nearly thirty-four years as a justice, he authored 1,161 opinions, with 316 of them dissenting. There is much more to be said about Harlan, and I’d recommend the brilliant book by Peter S. Canellos, The Great Dissenter.

Sources: The Kentucky Encyclopedia; The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky; Supremecourt.gov; Britannica.com; NPR.org; Wikipedia.org; Faces of Kentucky

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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