Justice William Cushing

Even From Jail, James Wilson Served on the First Supreme Court

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By Ken Zurski


On September 29 1789, President George Washington commissioned James Wilson as an associate judge to the first United States Supreme Court.

The Scottish born Wilson, who immigrated to Philadelphia in 1766, joined five other estimable men also appointed by Washington.  Like the others, Wilson was an inspired choice with a formidable record: a founding father, signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and a representative of Pennsylvania in the first Continental Congress.

After Washington’s nomination, Wilson was confirmed by the Senate in just two days.

“When I deliver my sentiments from this chair,” Wilson said in a lecture, “they shall be my honest sentiments: when I deliver them from the bench, they shall be nothing more.”

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Because the Constitution set the early ground rules of laws, there wasn’t much for the first U.S. Supreme Court to do. In fact during Wilson’s appointment in 1789 and through most of the next decade, only nine cases were heard. Wilson kept busy in the private sector teaching and lecturing at the College of Philadelphia, as that institution’s first professor.

He also spent a couple of stints in prison.

His downfall was bad debts. Thanks to the Panic of 1796-1797, Wilson accrued heavy losses due to bad land deals and was briefly jailed in debtor’s prison, first in Burlington, New Jersey, and then again in North Carolina, where he moved to avoid more creditors.

While serving time, albeit in short stretches, Wilson continued his duties as a Supreme Court justice. This was widely accepted without contention or debate. Inaction of the court was likely the main reason why.  Plus, the only established way Wilson could leave his post is by quitting, retirement, sickness or worse. Bad debts and stints in jail apparently weren’t among the criteria needed for removal.

However, less than a year after his short imprisonments, in 1798, Wilson was dead. Following a bout of malaria, Wilson suffered a stroke and never recovered. He was 55.

Of the six original Supreme Court justices, Wilson ended up being the second to serve the longest (Justice William Cushing remained on the Court until 1810) and had become the first to end his term by death.