The Worst Supreme Court Justice in History?

tags: Supreme Court, Supreme Court justice

Sean Braswell is a Senior Writer at OZY. He has five degrees and writes about history, politics, film, sports, and anything in which he gets to use the word “dystopian.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas takes a lot of heat over his, shall we say, lackluster participation in the court’s oral arguments. Thomas will go years without posing a question to the lawyers pleading their case before him, and court watchers have grown accustomed to the sight of him reclining in his leather chair and staring at the ceiling, seemingly oblivious to the proceedings.

On the scale of historical disengagement on America’s high court, however, Thomas’ transgressions are pretty minor. The court’s history is riddled with undistinguished jurists who never approached Thomas’ hundreds of opinions and quarter century on the bench. Who can’t forget John Rutledge, the first Johnny R. to be named chief justice, who, just 16 days after President George Washington named him to the court in 1795, publicly criticized a key treaty supported by both Washington and the Senate, leading to his prompt dismissal?

“To be insignificant for one or two years [as a justice], however, is child’s play,” wrote University of Chicago law professor David Currie, but “to maintain a profile of insignificance over a period of a decade or more is an accomplishment of high order.” Currie made that observation during a lighthearted debate with fellow professor Frank Easterbrook (now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit) that played out in the pages of the University of Chicago Law Review in 1983. In both scholars’ search for the individual who deserved the title “Most Insignificant Justice,” one name surfaced above all others: Gabriel Duvall.

“[I]mpartial examination of Duvall’s performance reveals to even the uninitiated observer,” wrote Currie, “that he achieved an enviable standard of insignificance against which all other justices must be measured.” In his 24 years on the court, Duvall, nominated by President James Madison in 1811, penned just 18 opinions in the 962 cases before him. In constitutional cases, Duvall issued but one opinion in a quarter century on the bench — delivered in just three words: “Duvall, Justice, dissented.”  ...

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