John Rutledge (September 17, 1739 – July 23, 1800) was the second
Chief Justice of the
Supreme Court of the United States
Supreme Court of the United States and the first
Governor of South Carolina
Governor of South Carolina after the Declaration of Independence.
Rutledge holds the record for the shortest tenure of any Chief
Justice, and is the only Chief Justice to serve on a recess
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Rutledge established a legal
career after studying at Middle Temple. He was the elder brother of
Edward Rutledge, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence.
Rutledge served as a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress, which
protested taxes imposed on the
Thirteen Colonies by the Parliament of
Great Britain. He also served as a delegate to the Continental
Congress before being elected as Governor of South Carolina. He served
as governor during much of the American Revolutionary War.
After briefly returning to Congress, Rutledge was appointed to the
South Carolina Court of Chancery. He was a delegate to the 1787
Philadelphia Convention, which wrote the United States Constitution.
During the convention, he served as Chairman of the Committee of
Detail, which produced the first full draft of the Constitution. He
also helped ensure that the Constitution did not allow the Supreme
Court to issue advisory opinions. In 1789, after the ratification of
the Constitution, President
George Washington appointed Rutledge as
one of the inaugural Associate Justices of the Supreme Court. Rutledge
left the Supreme Court in 1791 to become Chief Justice of the South
Carolina Court of Common Pleas and Sessions.
In June 1795, Washington nominated Rutledge to succeed
John Jay as
Chief Justice of the United States
Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, pending Senate
confirmation. As the Senate was not in session, he also used a recess
appointment to make Rutledge immediately succeed Jay on a temporary
basis. After accepting the appointment, Rutledge gave a speech
denouncing the Jay Treaty, and rumors emerged that Rutledge suffered
from alcoholism or mental illness. In December 1795, the Senate
rejected Rutledge's nomination in a 10–14 vote. Rutledge left the
Court days after the Senate vote, and withdrew from public life until
his death in 1800.
1 Early life and family
2 Pre-Revolutionary War
3 President of South Carolina
4 Governor of South Carolina
4.1 Charleston occupied
6 The Story of the Tavern Keeper
7 Constitutional Convention
8 Supreme Court Associate Justice
9 Chief Justice of the United States
10 Later years
12 See also
15 Further reading
16 External links
Early life and family
Coat of Arms of John Rutledge
Rutledge was the eldest child in a large family in Charleston, South
Carolina. His father was Scots-Irish immigrant
John Rutledge (Sr.)
(1713–1750), the physician. His mother, South Carolina–born Sarah
(née Hext; born September 18, 1724), was of English descent. John had
six younger siblings: Andrew (1740–1772), Thomas (1741–1783),
Sarah (1742–1819), Hugh (1745–1811), Mary (1747–1832), and
Edward (1749–1800). John’s early education was provided by his
father until the latter's death. The rest of Rutledge's primary
education was provided by an
John took an early interest in law and often "played lawyer" with his
brothers and sisters. When he was 17 years old, Rutledge began to read
law under a man named James Parsons. Two years later, Rutledge sailed
to England to further his studies at London's Middle Temple. In the
course of his studies, he won several cases in English courts.
After finishing his studies, Rutledge returned to Charleston to begin
a fruitful legal career. At the time, many new lawyers barely scraped
together enough business to earn their livings. Most new lawyers could
only hope that they would win well-known cases to ensure their
success. Rutledge, however, emerged almost immediately as one of
the most prominent lawyers in Charleston, and his services were in
With his successful legal career, he was able to build on his mother's
fortune. On May 1, 1763, Rutledge married Elizabeth Grimké (born
1742). Rutledge was very devoted to his wife, and Elizabeth's death on
July 6, 1792, was a major cause of the illness that affected Rutledge
in his later years.
John and Elizabeth had 10 children: Martha Henrietta (1764–1816),
Sarah (born and died 1765), John (1766–1819), Edward James
(1767–1811), Frederick Wilkes (1769–1821), William Spencer
(1771–1821), Charles Wilson (1773–1821), Thomas (born 1774 and
died young), Elizabeth (1776–1842), and States Whitcomb
In mid-1765 Rutledge was an important figure in the Stamp Act
Congress. This congress produced a resolution that stated that it was
"the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them
but with their own consent, given personally, or by their
representatives." Rutledge chaired a committee that drew up a petition
House of Lords
House of Lords attempting to persuade them to reject the Stamp
Act. They were ultimately unsuccessful.
When the delegates returned to
South Carolina after the Congress
adjourned, they found the state in turmoil. The people had destroyed
all the revenue stamps they could find; they broke into the houses of
suspected Loyalists to search for stamps. When the Stamp Act went into
effect on November 1, 1765, there were no stamps in the entire colony.
Dougal Campbell, the Charleston court clerk, refused to issue any
papers without the stamps. Because of this, all legal processes in the
entire state came to a standstill until news that the Stamp Act had
been repealed reached
South Carolina in early May 1766.
After the Stamp Act conflict ended, Rutledge went back into private
life, and to his law practice. Besides serving in the colonial
legislature, he did not involve himself in politics. His law practice
continued to expand and he became fairly wealthy as a result.
In 1774, Rutledge was elected to the First Continental Congress. It is
not known for certain exactly what
John Rutledge did in the Congress.
The records of the Congress refer only to "Rutledge", though both John
and his brother
Edward Rutledge were present. The most important
contribution made by "Rutledge" to the Congress was during the debate
on how to apportion votes in the Congress. Some wanted votes to be
apportioned by the population of the colonies. Others wanted to give
each colony one vote. "Rutledge" observed that as the Congress had no
legal authority to force the colonies to accept its decisions, it
would make the most sense to give each colony one vote. The other
delegates ultimately agreed to this proposal.
President of South Carolina
John Rutledge served in the First
Continental Congress and the Second
Continental Congress until 1776. That year, he was elected President
South Carolina under a constitution drawn up on March 26, 1776.
Upon taking office, he worked quickly to organize the new government
and to prepare defenses against British attack.
In early 1776, Rutledge learned that British forces would attempt to
take Charleston. In response, he ordered the construction of Fort
Sullivan (now Fort Moultrie) on
Sullivan's Island in Charleston
Harbor. When the British arrived, the fort was only half completed.
General Charles Lee of the Continental Army, who had arrived a few
days earlier with reinforcements from North Carolina, told Rutledge
the fort should be evacuated, as Lee considered it indefensible. Lee
said that the fort would fall in under a half an hour, and all the men
would be killed. In a note to the fort’s commanding officer,
Colonel William Moultrie, Rutledge wrote "General Lee [...] wishes you
to evacuate the fort. You will not, without [an] order from me. I
would sooner cut off my hand than write one." Rutledge, noticed
that Lee was arrogant and uncouth and unfit to control the militia.
Rutledge, by virtue of being elected by the state gained control of
the militia. Rutledge let it be known that only he could order the
militia to defend Charleston. During this time, Rutledge garnered the
nickname "Dictator John" by virtue of getting his way with things.
On June 28, 1776, the British attacked the fort, expecting it to fall
quickly. However, the fort’s walls were made out of palmetto logs
packed with sand, and the British cannonballs were absorbed into the
soft core of the logs without doing much damage, and the British were
repulsed, saving Charleston. The battle anniversary is still
celebrated as "Carolina Day", on June 28 each year. South Carolina's
current "Palmetto Flag", adopted in 1861, features the crescent symbol
on the defending soldiers' caps along with the Palmetto tree.
Rutledge continued as President of
South Carolina until 1778. That
South Carolina legislature proposed a new constitution.
Rutledge vetoed it, stating that it moved the state dangerously close
to a direct democracy, which Rutledge believed was only a step away
from total anarchy. When the legislature overrode his veto, Rutledge
Governor of South Carolina
A few months after Rutledge’s resignation, the British, having
suffered several defeats in the North, decided to try to retake the
South. Lieutenant-Colonel Archibald Campbell landed in Georgia with
3,000 men and quickly took control of the entire state.
The new state constitution was revised, and in 1779, Rutledge was
elected governor. While the first governor independent from Great
Britain, Rutledge is considered by historians and the Government of
South Carolina to be the 31st Governor, counting from the Colonial
Governors. See: List of Governors of South Carolina. Rutledge sent
troops under General
Benjamin Lincoln into Georgia to harass the
British. The new British commander in the south, General Jacques
Prevost, responded by marching on Charleston with 2,500 troops. When
Rutledge heard about this threat, he hurried to Charleston and worked
furiously to build up defenses. In spite of Rutledge’s efforts, when
General Prevost arrived outside Charleston, the British force had been
greatly increased by the addition of Loyalists, and the Americans were
Rutledge privately asked Prevost for surrender terms. Prevost made an
offer, but when Rutledge submitted it to the council of war, the
council instructed Rutledge to ask if the British would accept a
declaration of South Carolina’s neutrality in the Revolution. They
forbade Rutledge from surrendering mainly because William Moultrie,
who was now a general, believed that the Americans had at least as
many troops as the British force, which consisted largely of untrained
Prevost replied that as he was faced with such a large military force,
he would have to take some of them prisoner before he could accept.
Moultrie advised the council that he would never stand by and allow
the British to take Americans prisoner without fighting, so the
council decided to fight it out. The city braced itself for an attack,
but the next morning, the British had disappeared. Prevost had
intercepted a letter from General Lincoln to Moultrie saying that he
was marching to the aid of Charleston, and Prevost decided that he
could not hold out if the Americans got reinforcements.
A map showing the battle lines during the British siege in 1780.
In early 1780, Sir Henry Clinton attacked South Carolina, and
Charleston was thrown into a panic. The legislature adjourned upon
learning of the British. Their last action was to give Rutledge power
to do anything short of execution without trial. Rutledge did his best
to raise militia forces, but Charleston was in the midst of a smallpox
epidemic, and few dared to enter the city.
In February, Clinton landed near Charleston with 5,000 troops. By May
he had 9,000 troops to less than 2,500 Americans in the area. The
siege of Charleston ensued. On May 10, Charleston surrendered.
Rutledge had left the city. He remained Governor of the unconquered
part of South Carolina.
Though the Americans defeated the British at the
Battle of Cowpens
Battle of Cowpens in
January 1781, they could not drive the British back to Charleston
until June 1781, when General
Nathanael Greene arrived with more
troops. The British held Charleston until December 14, 1782. John
Rutledge’s term of office had already ended, and he did not run
again, because of term limits.
A few weeks after leaving the governorship, Rutledge was again elected
to the Continental Congress, where he served until 1783. In 1784, he
was appointed to the
South Carolina Court of Chancery, where he served
Like many prominent
European-American men in
South Carolina at the
time, he owned
African American people as slaves.
According to the state library of South Carolina:
"Although Rutledge claimed that he disliked slavery, as an attorney he
twice defended individuals who abused slaves. Before the American
Revolution, Rutledge owned sixty slaves; afterward, he possessed
twenty-eight. His wife Elizabeth manumitted her own slaves, and his
nieces were abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimké. Despite this,
Rutledge convinced the Constitutional Convention not to abolish
slavery. When Rutledge died in 1800, he only owned one slave due to
financial difficulties." 
The Story of the Tavern Keeper
In 1784, the
South Carolina legislature threatened to exile a tavern
keeper by the name of William Thompson, for insulting "Dictator" John
Rutledge, now the former governor and a prominent figure in the state.
Rutledge had sent a female servant to Thompson's tavern to watch a
fireworks display from the roof. Thompson denied the servant
admittance and sent her back to Rutledge. Rutledge was furious and
demanded that Thompson come to his house and apologize. Thompson
refused and, believing that his honor had been affronted by Rutledge's
arrogant request, challenged Rutledge to a duel. Since people like
Rutledge did not associate with tavern keepers, Rutledge went to the
South Carolina House of Representatives and insisted that it pass a
bill banishing Thompson from the state for insulting a government
official. Thompson claimed that, Rutledge and others who were
wealthy composed "the grand hierarchy of the State." Thompson argued
that independent people required leaders who were "good, able, useful
and friends to social equality." This altercation changed the
hierarchy of state legislatures for years to come.
Further information: Constitutional Convention
Rutledge around the time of the Convention.
In 1787, Rutledge was selected to represent
South Carolina in the
Philadelphia Convention which was called to revise the Articles of
Confederation, but instead produced the United States
Constitution. He attended all the sessions and served on five
committees. At the Convention, Rutledge maintained a moderate
nationalist stance and chaired the Committee of Detail. After the
Convention had debated the
Virginia Plan and settled some major points
of controversy, the Committee of Detail, which Rutledge chaired,
assembled during the convention's July 4 recess. Though the
committee did not record its minutes, it is known that the committee
used the original
Virginia Plan, the decisions of the Convention on
modifications to that plan, and other sources, to produce the first
full draft. Much of what was included in this draft consisted of
details, such as powers given to Congress, that hadn't been debated by
the Convention. Most of these were uncontroversial and unchallenged,
and as such much of what Rutledge's committee included in this first
draft made it into the final version of the Constitution without
Rutledge recommended that the executive power should consist of a
single person, rather than several, because he felt that one person
would feel the responsibility of the office more acutely. Because the
president would not be able to defer a decision to another
"co-president", Rutledge concluded that a single person would be more
likely to make a good choice. Rutledge was largely responsible for
denying the Supreme Court the right to give advisory opinions. Being a
judge himself, he strongly believed that a judge’s sole purpose was
to resolve legal conflicts; he held that a judge should hand down an
opinion only when ruling on an actual case. He also thought that the
legal community was the higher tier of society.
Rutledge also argued that if either house of the legislature was to
have the sole authority to introduce appropriation bills, it should be
the Senate. He noted that the Senate, by nature of its lengthier terms
of office, would tend to be more leisurely in its actions. Because of
this, Rutledge felt that the Senate would be better able to think
clearly about what the consequences of a bill would be. Also, since
the bills could not become law without the consent of the House of
Representatives, he concluded that there would be no danger of the
Senate ruling the country.
When the proposal was made that only landowners should have the right
to vote, Rutledge opposed it perhaps more strongly than any other
motion in the entire convention. He stated that making such a rule
would divide the people into "haves" and "have nots", would create an
undying resentment against landowners, and could do nothing but cause
discord. He was supported by Benjamin Franklin, and the rule was not
In the debate on slavery in the new country, Rutledge took the side of
the slave-owners; he was a Southerner and he owned several slaves.
Rutledge said that if the Constitution forbade slavery, the Southern
states would never agree to the Constitution.
Supreme Court Associate Justice
George Washington nominated Rutledge to the Supreme Court of the
United States as an Associate Justice on September 24, 1789. The
United States Senate
United States Senate confirmed his appointment on September 26, 1789,
and Washington signed both the commissions of Chief Justice John Jay
and Rutledge that same day. On March 4, 1791, Rutledge resigned from
the Supreme Court, without having ever heard a case, in order to
become Chief Justice of the
South Carolina Court of Common Pleas and
Chief Justice of the United States
A bust of
John Rutledge located in the United States Supreme Court.
On June 28, 1795, Chief Justice
John Jay resigned, having been elected
Governor of New York. President Washington selected Rutledge to
succeed Jay as Chief Justice. As the Senate was not in session at the
time, Rutledge's recess appointment took effect immediately. He was
commissioned as the second Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on June
On July 16, 1795, Rutledge gave a highly controversial speech
Jay Treaty with Great Britain. He reportedly said in
the speech "that he had rather the President should die than sign that
puerile instrument"– and that he "preferred war to an adoption of
it." Rutledge's speech against the
Jay Treaty cost him the support
of many in the Washington Administration, which supported the treaty,
and in the Senate, which subsequently advised and consented to its
ratification by a two-thirds vote and which would soon be debating and
voting on his nomination to the Supreme Court.
Two cases were decided while Rutledge was chief justice. In United
States v. Peters, the Court ruled that federal district courts had no
jurisdiction over crimes committed against Americans in international
waters. In Talbot v. Janson, the Court held that a citizen of the
United States did not waive all claims to U.S. citizenship by either
renouncing citizenship of an individual state, or by becoming a
citizen of another country. The
Rutledge Court thus established an
important precedent for multiple citizenship in the United States.
By the time of his formal nomination to the Court on December 10,
1795, Rutledge's reputation was in tatters and support for his
nomination had faded. Rumors of mental illness and alcohol abuse
swirled around him, concocted largely by the Federalist press. His
words and actions in response to the
Jay Treaty were used as evidence
of his continued mental decline. The Senate rejected his
appointment on December 15, 1795 by a vote of 14–10. This was the
first time that the Senate had rejected a Supreme Court nomination. To
date, it is the only Supreme Court recess appointment not to be
subsequently confirmed, and Rutledge remains the only Supreme
Court justice unseated involuntarily by the Senate.
The Senate's rejection of his nomination left Rutledge mentally
ruined. On December 26, 1795, he attempted suicide by jumping off a
wharf into Charleston Harbor. He was rescued by two slaves who
saw him drowning. Though the Senate remained in session through
June 1, 1796, which would have been the automatic end of Rutledge's
tenure following the rejection, Rutledge resigned from the Court two
days later, on December 28, 1795, having served the briefest tenure of
any Chief Justice of the United States
Regarding the Senate's rejection of Rutledge's nomination, then Vice
John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that it "gave me pain
for an old friend, though I could not but think he deserved it. Chief
Justices must not go to illegal Meetings and become popular orators in
favor of Sedition, nor inflame the popular discontents which are ill
founded, nor propagate Disunion, Division, Contention and delusion
among the people."
"Jurist, Patriot, Statesman": The gravestone of
John Rutledge at St.
Michael's Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina
Following his disastrous speech on the Jay Treaty, Senate rejection,
suicide attempt, and resignation from the Supreme Court, Rutledge
withdrew from public life and returned to Charleston. He died on June
21, 1800, at the age of sixty. He was interred at St. Michael's
Episcopal Church in Charleston. One of his houses, said to
have been built in 1763 and definitely sold in 1790, was renovated in
1989 and opened to the public as the
John Rutledge House Inn.
^ While Rutledge was officially the 31st Governor of South Carolina,
he was the first governor under the United States independent from
Great Britain. He was also officially titled the President of South
Carolina during his first term.
Demographics of the Supreme Court of the United States
List of Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States
List of United States Chief Justices by time in office
List of U.S. Supreme Court Justices by time in office
United States Supreme Court
United States Supreme Court cases during the Rutledge Court
List of Governors of South Carolina
U.S. Constitution, judiciary debates, image: Chief Justices
^ Flanders, Henry (1874). The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices of
the Supreme Court of the United States. 1. Philadelphia: J. B.
Lippincott & Co. pp. 432–433. Retrieved 2008-04-29.
^ Flanders 438–439
^ Flanders 447–448
^ Fradin, Dennis Brindell (2005). The Founders: The 39 Stories behind
the U.S. Constitution. New York City: Walker Publishing Company, Inc.
^ Flanders 451
^ Flanders 460
^ Flanders 463–464
^ Hartley, Cecil B. (1860). Heroes and Patriots of the South.
Philadelphia: G. G. Evans. p. 294. Retrieved 2008-04-30.
^ Flanders 481–482
^ a b Hartley 296–297
^ Fradin 91
^ Horton 142
^ Fradin 91–92
^ Flanders 551
^ a b Flanders 561
^ Flanders 561–564
^ Flanders 568–569
^ Flanders 573
^ Flanders 576–577
^ Flanders 588–589
^ "Intellectual Founders – Slavery at
South Carolina College,
1801–1865". University of
South Carolina Libraries. Retrieved
October 18, 2016.
^ Cooper 100–101,
^ a b Flanders 602
^ Madison, James (1893). E. H. Scott, ed. Journal of the Federal
Convention. Chicago: Albert, Scott, and Co. passim. Retrieved
^ a b Stewart, David. The Summer of 1787. p168
^ Flanders 604
^ Flanders 606
^ Flanders 607
^ Flanders 609–610
^ Flanders 622
^ a b c "1787–1800 – December 15, 1795 Chief Justice Nomination
United States Senate
United States Senate Historical Office. Retrieved October
^ a b Fisher, Louis (2001-09-05). "Recess Appointments of Federal
Judges" (PDF). Congressional Research Service. pp. 14–15.
Retrieved October 20, 2012.
^ Independent Chronicle (Boston). 1795-08-13, reprinted in Marcus,
Maeva, and Perry, James Russell. The Documentary History of the
Supreme Court of the United States, 1789–1800 p. 780
^ Wermiel, Stephen (February 15, 2013). "SCOTUS for law students
(sponsored by Bloomberg Law): Recess appointments and the Court".
SCOTUSblog, Supreme Court of the United States. Retrieved January 16,
^ Haw, James. John and
Edward Rutledge of
South Carolina (University
of Georgia Press 1997).
^ "John Rutledge". Oyez. Retrieved March 21, 2018.
^ Flanders 642
^ Maltese, John. The Selling of Supreme Court Nominees (Johns Hopkins
University Press 1998), pp. 30–31.
^ "Sheriff's spokesman: Supreme Court Historical Society: John
Rutledge". December 5, 2009. Archived from the original on December 2,
2009. Retrieved December 5, 2009.
^ Christensen, George A. (1983) "Here Lies the Supreme Court:
Gravesites of the Justices, Yearbook". Archived from the original on
September 3, 2005. Retrieved 2013-11-24. Supreme Court
Historical Society at
Internet Archive which erroneously lists the
gravesite as being in Colorado.
^ See also Christensen, George A., "Here Lies the Supreme Court:
Revisited", Journal of Supreme Court History, Volume 33 Issue 1, pp.
17–41 (Feb 19, 2008), University of Alabama.
John Rutledge House Inn
John Rutledge House Inn History".
John Rutledge House Inn. Archived
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United States Supreme Court. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.,
1874 at Google Books.
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Constitution. New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 2005.
Hartley, Cecil B. Heroes and Patriots of the South. Philadelphia: G.
G. Evans, 1860.
Haw, James. Founding brothers: John and
Edward Rutledge of South
Carolina, Athens: University of Georgia, 1997.
ISBN 0-8203-1859-0; ISBN 978-0-8203-1859-2.
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25 Apr. 2012.
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Chicago: Albert, Scott, and Co., 1893.
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public domain publication of the Federal Judicial Center.
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of Appointments to the Supreme Court (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford
University Press. ISBN 0-19-506557-3.
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Biographies, 1789–1995 (2nd ed.). (Supreme Court Historical Society,
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rev. ed., 1 vol., 1951)
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Wikisource has original works written by or about:
Ireland, Robert M.
John Rutledge at Answers.com.
NGA Biography of John Rutledge
John Rutledge at Find a Grave
Supreme Court of the United States
Supreme Court of the United States Media, John Rutledge.
SCIway Biography of John Rutledge
President of South Carolina
Governor of South Carolina
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
Signatories of the United States Constitution
William Samuel Johnson
Gunning Bedford Jr.
Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer
Richard Dobbs Spaight
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
Chief Justices of the United States
John Jay (1789–1795; cases)
John Rutledge (1795; cases)
Oliver Ellsworth (1796–1800; cases)
John Marshall (1801–1835; cases)
Roger B. Taney
Roger B. Taney (1836–1864; cases)
Salmon P. Chase
Salmon P. Chase (1864–1873; cases)
Morrison Waite (1874–1888; cases)
Melville Fuller (1888–1910; cases)
Edward Douglass White
Edward Douglass White (1910–1921; cases)
William Howard Taft
William Howard Taft (1921–1930; cases)
Charles Evans Hughes
Charles Evans Hughes (1930–1941; cases)
Harlan F. Stone
Harlan F. Stone (1941–1946; cases)
Fred M. Vinson
Fred M. Vinson (1946–1953; cases)
Earl Warren (1953–1969; cases)
Warren E. Burger
Warren E. Burger (1969–1986; cases)
William Rehnquist (1986–2005; cases)
John Roberts (2005–present; cases)
Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States
S. P. Chase
Note: Seats 5 and 7 are defunct
Governors of South Carolina
Supreme Court of the United States
The Jay Court
John Jay (1789–1795)
The Rutledge Court
John Rutledge (1795)
ISNI: 0000 0001 1064 3411
US Congress: R000