John Rutledge Supreme Court nominations

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Painting of Rutledge, circa 1788

John Rutledge was twice nominated by President George Washington to the Supreme Court of the United States, being nominated and confirmed in 1789 as an associate justice, and being unsuccessfully nominated in 1795 to serve as chief justice.

1789 nomination for associate justice[edit]

John Rutledge 1789 Supreme Court nomination
NomineeJohn Rutledge
Nominated byGeorge Washington
DateSeptember 24, 1789 (nominated)
September 27, 1789 (Senate vote)
SucceedingPosition established
OutcomeConfirmed by Senate
Senate confirmation vote
ResultConfirmed by voice vote

On September 24, 1789, George Washington nominated Rutledge for one of the five associate justice positions on the newly established Supreme Court. His appointment (along with those of fellow associate justices John Blair Jr., William Cushing, Robert H. Harrison, and James Wilson; plus that of John Jay for chief justice) was confirmed by the Senate two days later by voice vote.[1] While he had accepted the associate judgeship, Rutledge had been hoping to be named the court's chief justice instead.[2] Rutledge's service on the Court officially began February 15, 1790, when he took the judicial oath, and continued until March 5, 1791.[3] However, Rutledge would ultimately resign from this Supreme Court judgeship in 1791 before ever hearing a case in order to become chief justice of the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas and Sessions.[4][5]

1795 nomination for chief justice[edit]

John Rutledge 1795 Supreme Court nomination
NomineeJohn Rutledge
Nominated byGeorge Washington
DateDecember 10, 1795 (nominated)
December 15, 1795 (Senate vote)
SucceedingJohn Jay
OutcomeRejected by Senate
Senate confirmation vote
Votes in favor10
Votes against14
Not voting6
Rutledge was already serving as chief justice by recess appointment

In 1795, Rutlege was unsuccessfully nominated to the court to serve as chief justice, after having been first given a recess appointment by President Washington to the position in August 1795. On December 10, 1795, Washington nominated Rutlege to serve as chief justice permanently. The nomination ran into opposition due to speculation about his mental health and alcohol use. The nomination was rejected by the Senate in a 14–10 vote, the first instance in which the Senate rejected a Supreme Court nomination, and the only instance in the court's history in which a recess appointee was not permanently confirmed after the recess.

Recess appointment[edit]

On June 28, 1795, Chief Justice John Jay resigned after having been elected governor of New York. Rutlege wrote Washington that month offering to replace Jay as chief justice. President Washington selected Rutledge to succeed Jay as chief justice, and, as the Senate would not be meeting again until December, gave Rutledge a recess appointment so that he could serve as chief justice during the upcoming August session. He was commissioned as the second Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on June 30, 1795,[6] and took the judicial oath on August 12.[3][7]


President Washington formally nominated Rutlege on December 10, 1795, to a lifetime appointment as chief justice. However, by this time, 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 (including an immensely controversial speech he delivered against the treaty on July 16, 1795) were used as evidence of his continued mental decline.[4][8] A lot of the opposition to Rutledge spurred from his opposition to the Jay Treaty, meaning that his political views influenced opposition to his appointment.[9]

The Senate rejected the nomination on December 15, 1795, by a vote of 14–10. This was the first time that the Senate had voted down a Supreme Court nomination. As of 2022; it remains the only U.S. Supreme Court recess appointment to be subsequently rejected by the Senate.[4][10] All nine Democratic Republican Senators that cast a vote voted to confirm Rutledge, while all but one of the fifteen Federalist Senators that cast a vote voted against his confirmation.[11] This came despite the fact that the Federalist Party was aligned with Washington.[5]

December 15, 1795 Senate confirmation vote tally sheet
Rutledge confirmation vote
December 15, 1795 Party Total votes
Federalist Democratic-Republican
Aye 1 9 10
No 14 0 14
Result: Rejected
Roll call vote on the nomination
Senator Party State Vote
William Bingham F Pennsylvania No
Timothy Bloodworth DR North Carolina Aye
John Brown DR Kentucky Aye
Pierce Butler DR South Carolina Aye
William Bradford F Rhode Island Did not vote
Aaron Burr DR New York Aye
George Cabot F Massachusetts No
Oliver Ellsworth F Connecticut No
Theodore Foster F Rhode Island No
Frederick Frelinghuysen F New Jersey No
James Gunn F Georgia Did not vote
John Henry F Maryland Did not vote
James Jackson DR Georgia Did not vote
Rufus King F New York No
John Langdon DR New Hampshire Aye
Henry Latimer F Delaware No
Samuel Livermore F New Hampshire No
Humphrey Marshall F Kentucky No
Alexander Martin DR North Carolina Aye
Stevens Mason DR Virginia Aye
Elijah Paine F Vermont No
Richard Potts F Maryland Did not vote
Jacob Read F South Carolina Aye
Moses Robinson DR Vermont Aye
James Ross F Pennsylvania No
John Rutherfurd F New Jersey No
Caleb Strong F Massachusetts No
Henry Tazewell DR Virginia Aye
Jonathan Trumbull Jr. F Connecticut No
John Vining F Delaware Did not vote



Soon after the Senate's rejection of his nomination to the Supreme Court, on December 26, 1795, Rutledge attempted suicide by jumping off a wharf into Charleston Harbor.[13][6][14] He was rescued by two slaves who saw him drowning.[15] Though the Senate remained in session through June 1, 1796, which would have been the automatic end of Rutledge's commission 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 (138 days).[16] Afterward, he largely withdrew from public life and returned to live in Charleston, South Carolina.[2][17]

Regarding the Senate's rejection of Rutledge's nomination, Vice President 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."[18]


  1. ^ "Supreme Court Nominations: present-1789". Washington, D.C.: United States Senate. Archived from the original on December 9, 2020. Retrieved August 31, 2018.
  2. ^ a b "John Rutledge". JRank. Retrieved April 16, 2022.
  3. ^ a b "Justices 1789 to Present". Washington, D.C.: Supreme Court of the United States. Archived from the original on April 15, 2010. Retrieved December 7, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c "Chief Justice Nomination Rejected". Washington, D.C.: United States Senate. Retrieved March 8, 2022.
  5. ^ a b "Supreme Court Nomination Battles". Time. May 4, 2009. Retrieved April 16, 2022.
  6. ^ a b Fisher, Louis (September 5, 2005). "Recess Appointments of Federal Judges" (PDF). Congressional Research Service. pp. 14–15. Archived (PDF) from the original on April 17, 2020. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
  7. ^ "CQ Supreme Court Collection". Congressional Quarterly. Retrieved April 16, 2022.
  8. ^ Independent Chronicle (Boston). August 13, 1795, reprinted in Marcus, Maeva, and Perry, James Russell. The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789–1800 Archived April 28, 2016, at the Wayback Machine p. 780
  9. ^ Koziatek, Mike (March 31, 2022). "How often are U.S. Supreme Court nominees rejected by the Senate? Here's a list". MSN. Belleville News-Democrat. Retrieved April 16, 2022.
  10. ^ 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. Archived from the original on January 17, 2018. Retrieved January 16, 2018.
  11. ^ a b Lewis, Jeffrey B.; Poole, Keith; Rosenthal, Howard; Boche, Adam; Rudkin, Aaron; Sonnet, Luke (2022). "4th Congress Senate Vote 18 (1795)". Voteview: Congressional Roll-Call Votes Database. Retrieved April 26, 2022.
  12. ^ "Senate tally sheet on nomination of John Rutledge as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, December 15, 1795". Washington, D.C.: Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved March 5, 2022 – via U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.
  13. ^ Paxton, Sarah (October 9, 2018). "Top Ten Origins: Controversial SCOTUS Nominees". The Ohio State University. Retrieved April 16, 2022.
  14. ^ Haw, James. John and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina Archived May 29, 2016, at the Wayback Machine (University of Georgia Press 1997).
  15. ^ "John Rutledge". Oyez. Archived from the original on October 21, 2017. Retrieved March 21, 2018.
  16. ^ Flanders, Henry (1874). The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: J. B. Lippincott & Co. p. 642.
  17. ^ "Sheriff's spokesman: Supreme Court Historical Society: John Rutledge". December 5, 2009. Archived from the original on December 2, 2009. Retrieved December 5, 2009.
  18. ^ Maltese, John. The Selling of Supreme Court Nominees Archived June 24, 2016, at the Wayback Machine (Johns Hopkins University Press 1998), pp. 30–31.