Has a non-lawyer ever been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court?

In this GD thread – “Who will Bush nominate to succeed Justice O’Connor?” – http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=324027Quartz raised the possibility that it might be constitutional scholar or historian who is not a judge or an attorney. The Constitution does not require that a Supreme Court justice be a lawyer, but I’ve never heard of any non-lawyer being appointed to the bench. Has it ever happened?

The biographies of all US Supreme Court Justices are available here. Click on Judges of the United State Courts. The click on The Federal Judges Biographical Database (below the search box). The click the box marked Court, go to the bottom and click CONTINUE. Click on the box next to Court and select Supreme Court of The United States (all Justices) and have at it.

There might be sources that are easier to use but you’ll have to find them.

Nope, and it’s not likely to happen.

Can’t anybody think of any examples? Perhaps in the early days of the Republic, when the career path of college graduate --> law school graduate --> practicing attorney --> judge was not yet fully developed the way it is now . . .

According to Britannica the system of being authorized to practice law in sense of being an advocate goes all the way back to the late Roman empire where there were training schools in Rome and Constantinople. The courts were the authority that did the authorizing. That is, you couldn’t represent someone before the court without the court’s permission.

So a regular and defined method of deciding who is and who is not an attorney goes back a long way before the founding of the US. I sampled some bios of Court justices the source that I cited in my earlier post and many that I sampled were from the late 1700’ to early-mid 1800’s. Without exception they all “read law” which seems like it was sort of an apprenticeship under a lawyer who supervised you to the point where a court would admit you to practice law before it.

Why should there be any examples?

There were a couple of law schools in the colonial U.S. and also several in Britain. However, the standard path for a lawyer was to “read law” as an apprentice to an established lawyer. This was not only a career for the ambitious and smart, but a pathway to political success and wealth. Probably the majority of signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were lawyers. There was no shortage of them and no reason for any President not to pick one.

Of the first Supreme Court members, John Blair attended one of the British law schools (the Middle Temple), while William Cushing, John Rutledge, James Wilson, and John Jay read law. There were only five justices at the time.

The next four, James Iredell, Thomas Johnson, William Paterson, and Samuel Chase, read law.

You can check the rest for yourself.

Going through David Simmons’s source, I’ve found:[ul]
[li]Samuel Chase (read law, but seems to have never practiced)[/li][li]Gabriel Duvall (read law, seems never to have practiced)[/li][/ul]

I may have missed something. Also, I can’t believe that I just read through biographies of all 108 Supreme Court justices.

Previous thread:

Both of them had been sitting justices before being named to the Supreme Court, though, so they already had been vetted as knowledgeable attorneys. And being a member of a legislative body in those days was very much a part time effort. Unless one was independently wealthy a job was necessary. It is quite likely that they would have practiced law while holding those official titles. This was not seen as a conflict of interest, but as a purely practical matter.

Both did in fact practice:



But this is irrelevant: the question was whether a non-lawyer had been appointed. The answer would still be no even if they hadn’t practiced, because both had been admitted to the bar.

Law schools, which may have existed far into antiquity, have only become a requirement for practice relatively recently. If I’m remembering my course on the subject correctly, it wasn’t until somewhere between the world wars that law school attendance started becoming a prerequisite to being barred in most of the states.

(I think at least one state still doesn’t require it, but I don’t remember which one.)

Before that, the majority of attorneys began as apprentices, or attended “law schools” only between clerking gigs. I’d speculate that the explosive growth of the legal profession in recent decades is owed entirely to the change. Some schools can pump out 300-400 lawyers a year, compared with before, where apprenticeship might last a good long time, and a practicing attorney could probably only tutor one or two students effectively.
So, to partially answer the OP, none or almost none of the early justices would have been deemed lawyers by our standards today. They wouldn’t even be allowed to sit for most of the bar exams.

More than that – I know both California and Virginia allow you to read the law, and I’m sure they’re not the only ones. But certainly no more than a handful of new lawyers actually take this option.

Not really relevant to the OP. They certainly were all lawyers, even though the qualifications for being a lawyer have changed over time. Anyway, many of the early justices were from the Old Dominion, so they, at least, might be qualified to sit for a Bar Exam today.