Who Was the First Jurist?


Jurist is an English word denoting someone who has a professional law degree. It is used to refer to judges, lawyers, and academics.

John Marshall, Supreme Court justice, is often described as the most excellent judge in American history. He is said to have decisively shaped our constitutional history by establishing the judiciary department’s power and prestige as a coequal branch in a federal government of separated powers.

Gaius Cassius Longinus

Gaius Cassius Longinus was a Roman senator who led the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar in March ides 44 BCE. He was also a general and the brother-in-law of Marcus Junius Brutus, another of the conspirators. Longinus had a strong interest in philosophy and is believed to have become influenced by Epicureanism, a philosophy that promoted a withdrawal from politics. He used the ideas of this school to justify his actions against Caesar.

Following Caesar’s assassination, Longinus sided with the triumvirate of Mark Antony, Octavian (who would later become Emperor Augustus), and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. He and Brutus were able to raise significant forces, both on land and at sea, before leaving Rome. By the time they arrived in Smyrna, they had amassed a considerable war chest.

It is believed that Longinus and Brutus met with the philosopher Cicero to discuss their plans for a war against the Triumvirate. Like Brutus and Cassius, Cicero had pro-republican views and could relate to their motives for assassinating Caesar.

The two men had a difficult decision because, while they opposed the idea of assassinating the emperor, they did not want to see the revolution that was beginning to form turn into a civil war. They decided to leave Italy and head to the East, a region both men knew about.

When they arrived in Smyrna, Cassius’s reputation made it easy for him to gather troops from other governors. In 43 BCE, he faced the 12 legions of Publius Cornelius Dolabella at the Battle of Laodicea. Dolabella was defeated, and he committed suicide afterward.

Cassius’s success in the East allowed him and Brutus to assemble even more forces before heading toward Hellespont and Egypt. The pair divided their forces and waited until they thought their opponents had exhausted themselves before starting the war. This strategy was ultimately unsuccessful, and the team were defeated by Octavian and Mark Antony at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE. Longinus died a few days later.

John Catron

Born in Wythe County, Pennsylvania, in 1786, John Catron moved to Kentucky and Virginia before relocating to Tennessee in the early 19th century. He served in the War of 1812, then studied law and was admitted to the Bar in 1815. In 1824 he was elected judge of the Tennessee Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals and became its chief justice in 1831. Catron was a dedicated Jacksonian, and when President Andrew Jackson expanded the US Supreme Court from seven to nine members, he nominated Catron for one of the new seats on March 3, 1837—Jackson’s last day in office. The Senate confirmed the appointment five days later, and on May 1, 1837, Catron became an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Catron sat on the Court for twenty-eight years and took part in several cases of constitutional significance. He was an essential figure in the Dred Scott case that involved slavery and the Missouri Compromise—an agreement between free and slave states in 1820 that attempted to resolve a dispute about whether new territories should be admitted into the Union as either free or slave states.

During the Civil War, Catron advocated that Tennessee and other southern border states stay in the Union. When secessionists seized Nashville, Catron feared for his life and was advised that it was best to leave the state. Ultimately, he left his estate in Nashville and resided in Louisville, Kentucky.

In his judicial opinions, Catron often struggled to balance federal and state power in antebellum times. In the Bank of Augusta v Earle (1839), Catron wrote that a national banking corporation should be able to operate anywhere in the country as long as its charter was valid but that a state could prohibit it from using within its borders. In other decisions, he affirmed the principle that states had broad discretion in regulating interstate commerce—while emphasizing the limitations of Congress’s power in such matters.

William Cushing

In 1776 Cushing defended the town of Scituate against an accusation that its residents were aiding the British, resulting in a court case that made national headlines. The provincial congress also appointed him to become Massachusetts’ first sitting Chief Justice in 1777, a position he held until 1789. He was a charter member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Cushing was well regarded as a scholar and was known for his integrity, following the law to the letter.

He graduated from Harvard College in 1751 and was admitted to the Boston Bar in 1755. He moved to Pownalborough (present-day Dresden, Maine), then part of the Massachusetts province, and became the first practicing attorney in the eastern district. His practice in Maine involved representing large landowners against squatters and debtors.

Cushing was a devout and charitable Christian who ministered to the needs of others and trusted the Lord to provide his own. He gave money to help build a seminary at Starkey, N.Y., and founded a school for the blind at Batavia. He was a member of the Alpha chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and other scientific and legal societies.

Cushing was asked to resolve several controversies during his time on the bench. One of the most significant was a case involving the Townsend Act of 1767, which had shifted payment of provincial governors to the Crown rather than by appropriation from the local assemblies. Cushing declined the crown payment and chose to continue receiving a grant from the community, despite pressure from his peers and his own family to accept a Crown appointment.

Another critical case was a 1780 lawsuit brought by an emancipated slave against his former owner, who beat him and forced him to return to his old home. The court ruled that slavery was incompatible with the state constitution and that it was, therefore, illegal in Massachusetts.

As a judge on the circuit, Cushing traveled frequently throughout the thirteen colonies and visited many frontier courts. Often, he would bring his wife, Hannah Phillips, on a course with him to ease his loneliness. She was an excellent teacher, having been educated at Middletown, Conn., and was a trendy figure at the frontier courts.

Richard Henry Dana

The son of a wealthy Boston Brahmin, Dana enrolled at Harvard, where he was a distinguished student and won several prizes. But as a junior, he came down with measles, which ruined his eyesight. He quit college, shipped out as an ordinary seaman in a small brig, and sailed around Cape Horn to California. Dana later returned to his studies and a legal career.

He was a popular lecturer on the subject of law and ethics. His lectures used Shakespeare as a pretext for criticizing contemporary American society. He lamented the American exaltation of democratic equality and its attendant greed and conformity. He also railed against Massachusetts’ own Daniel Webster and his complicity in the Fugitive Slave Act.

After being admitted to the bar in 1840, Dana started his law practice in Boston. He soon gained a reputation as an expert in maritime law and 1841, published The Seaman’s Friend, which became a standard manual on the direction of the sea. He also gave free legal aid to fugitive slaves. This enraged Boston’s ship owners and prompted his enemies list to grow.

Dana’s greatest gift to Boston and the country was his work defending three fugitive slave arrests in 1850. The first was Shadrach Minchin, a free black waiter who was arrested for allegedly stealing a silver cup. The second was Tom Sims, a black man arrested for restraining a policeman in a scuffle. The third was Anthony Burns, who was being held under the Fugitive Slave Act despite his freedom as a citizen.

Dana’s eloquent arguments on behalf of these men were widely read. He was considered one of the best lawyers in the nation. In an era of Manifest Destiny and national expansion, he was a staunch opponent of slavery. But he was also a staunch Tory, and his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act cost him a large share of his lucrative law practice. He died in 1879, almost completely forgotten.