Supreme Court Justices Ranked: The Best, the Worst, the Most Geographically Proximate and the Dead


One characteristic of blogs that I have not figured out how to get around is that the medium disfavors citation to print-only sources. Bloggers are eager to link to support for their propositions from online references but they (and I count myself in this) are loathe to pull out the Harvard citator or Chicago Manual and drop a hoary old bibliographic citation on their readers. In a recent post, “John McKinley: Louisville's Lost Supreme Court Justice," I made several assertions that seemed to cry out for a footnote but I could not figure out how to insert such references without messing up the flow and (more importantly) detracting from my cool graphic layout. First, I numbered Louis D. Brandeis among the greatest justices to have sat on the court, a very defensible position, but a source or two might be nice. Second, I suggested that Justice John McKinley was perhaps not as well-respected. This might not strike readers who have not heard of him (a sizeable subset of humanity) as needing a citation, but there is actually excellent authority for the statement (from the University of Chicago Law Review, no less). Finally, I argued that McKinley is not usually counted among the list of Kentucky Supreme Court justices. Some might say: There’s a list?! Oh yes, my dear, there is a list. In fact, a little bibliography answering all these questions might be in order…

Top Supreme Court Justices:
Ranking judges is perhaps the most entertaining useless exercise in the legal world (Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss can keep the president-ranking game). In 1992, University of Texas Law Librarian Roy Mersky and a UT colleague bibliographically surveyed all of the judge-ranking efforts up to that date. Roy M. Mersky and Gary R. Hartman, Rating the Justices, 84 Law Libr. J. 113 (1992). Among the best known efforts are George R. Currie, A Judicial All-Star Nine, 1964 Wis. L. Rev. 3, Bernard Schwartz, The Judicial Ten: America's Greatest Judges, 1979 So. Ill. U. Law J. 405. and James E. Hambleton’s meta-analysis, The All-Time, All-Star, All-Era Supreme Court, A.B.A. J. Apr. 1983, at 462. Almost the studies put Brandeis in the top nine (in center-field, if I read the ABA Journal illustration right). Brandeis missed Roscoe Pound’s 1938 list of all-time judges of U.S. history (The Formative Era of American Law 4, 30 n.2), hobbled by the evident fact that he failed meet an implied condition of the ranking: he was still alive.

Most Insignificant Justices
The two seminal works on this topic (see fn 1 of Easterbook, infra) are David Currie, The Most Insignificant Justice: A Preliminary Inquiry, 50 U. Chi. L. Rev. 466 (1983) and Frank H. Easterbrook, The Most Insignificant Justice Further Evidence, 50 U. Chi. L. Rev. 481 (1983). Students of judicial irrelevance may be interested in Professor Currie’s Objective Indicator of Insignificance (OII) factors that led him to fix the MIJ tag on Virginian Gabriel Duvall and Kentuckians may be distressed that Judge Easterbrook pointed the finger at homeboy Thomas Todd, but the fact is that both seriously considered John McKinley for the esteemed title of Sultan of Sloth.


Kentucky’s Justices:
In his article Kentucky Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court (70 Register Ky. Hist. Soc. 121), Woodford L. Gardner, Jr., confined his list of “Kentucky Justices” to the eight men who were born in the state and the two men appointed to the court while residing in the state. In order of appointment they are:

Thomas Todd (no snickering), born in Virginia, appointed from Kentucky, 1807.
Robert Trimble, born in Virginia, appointed from Kentucky, 1826.
Samuel Freeman Miller, born in Richmond, Ky., appointed from Iowa, 1862.
John Marshall Harlan, born in Boyle Co., Ky., appointed from Kentucky, 1877.
Horace H. Lurton, born in Newport, Ky., appointed from Tennessee, 1910.
James C. McReynolds, born in Elkton, Ky., appointed from Tennessee, 1914.
Louis D. Brandeis, born in Louisville, Ky., appointed from Massachusetts, 1916.
Stanley F. Reed, born in Boyle Co., Ky., appointed from Kentucky, 1938.
Wiley B. Rutledge, born in Cloverport, Ky., appointed from Iowa, 1943.
Fred M. Vinson, born in Louisa, Ky., appointed from Kentucky, 1946.

In fairness to Gardner, he was not unaware of McKinley’s Kentucky ties, grouping him with John McLean, Philip Pendleton Barbour and John Catron as justices “closely associated with Kentucky.” McLean lived in the state a few years as a child and the Virginian Barbour practiced in Kentucky for a couple years before returning home. Catron had greater ties to the state, having read law, practiced and held office in Kentucky before migrating to Tennessee. None but McKinley is buried here, however, and he now can claim 166 years of residence.

Justice in Repose:
Finally, this whole exercise occurred when I noticed that nearby Cave Hill Cemetery had a justice planted among the oaks and roses, in George A. Christensen, Here Lies the Supreme Court: Revisited, 33 J. Sup. Ct. Hist. 17 (2008), an updated survey of the final resting places of Supreme Court justices. Plan your vacation accordingly!

Now linked to Ratio Juris

Hi Kurt,

I've linked you at Ratio Juris. I look forward to the next installment!


Maps of Supreme Court Justices' final resting places


Your McKinley and "Supreme Court Justice ranking" posts are excellent. I invite you to read this Ratio Juris post for maps identifying the final resting places of Supreme Court Justices

Best wishes,


New Twist on Geographical Proximateness...

That is a great site!  It gives me an idea for another post...