Carter, James Coolidge

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Carter, James Coolidge

James Coolidge Carter was a lawyer and leading legal scholar and philosopher of the late nineteenth century.

Born into a poor family on October 14, 1827, in Lancaster, Massachusetts, Carter attended Derby Academy in Hingham, Massachusetts. In 1846 he entered Harvard College. An outstanding student, he graduated fourth in his class in 1850. He then moved to New York City to work as a private tutor and to study law. He returned to Cambridge a year later and enrolled in what was then known as the Dane Law School at Harvard, graduating in 1853. Carter was then admitted to the New York state bar and clerked briefly before founding the firm of Scudder and Carter. He remained associated with the firm for the next fifty-two years.

"The function of law [is] the marking out of the largest area within which each individual could move freely and act without invading the like freedom in every other—that is, to insure the largest possible freedom."
—James Coolidge Carter

Carter quickly emerged as a highly skilled and sought-after lawyer. He also became a prominent leader of the New York bar, helping to form the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and serving as the association's president for five terms. He had a strong interest in municipal reform and in 1875 he was appointed by the governor to a commission charged with devising a plan of government for the cities of New York State. He also helped found the National Municipal League and was its president for nine years. Later in his career Carter achieved national prominence as president of the American Bar Association from 1894 to 1895 and for his appearance as counsel for the United States before the Bering Sea Fur-Seal Tribunal of Arbitration in 1893. Carter's opening argument before the tribunal in Paris reportedly lasted seven days.

In addition to his involvement in municipal affairs, Carter devoted his energies to organizing opposition to a proposed civil code for the state of New York. Carter had long been an opponent of the code of procedure, which had been part of the law since 1846, calling it an embarrassment to the practicing bar. In 1883, he authored The Proposed Codification of Our Common Law, a widely distributed pamphlet outlining his views, which was influential in the code's eventual defeat in the state legislature. Carter believed that any scheme to reduce the law to statutes was fundamentally unsound and simply could not be carried out. Even if it could be accomplished, he argued, Codification was undesirable because "[l]aw is not a command or body of commands, but consists of rules springing from the social standard of justice or from the habits and customs from which that standard has itself been derived." He went on to write and speak extensively on the issue of codification throughout his life and his lectures were published after his death as Law: Its Origin, Growth, and Function (1907).

Carter strongly believed in restraints on legislative powers and he applied his legal philosophy to important cases he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. In In re Dupre, 143 U.S. 110, 12 S. Ct. 374, 36 L. Ed. 93 (1891), Carter argued that Congress lacked the authority to prohibit as criminal the use of the mails for the circulation of lottery tickets. According to Carter, the federal government could use the powers granted to it by the Constitution for only limited purposes, and to exceed such limits through the law in question usurped the powers reserved to the states under the Tenth Amendment. Carter's doctrine of "limited powers" would be used by other lawyers and scholars to restrict congressional control over interstate commerce and taxes.

Carter again argued for a limited government role in Smyth v. Ames, 169 U.S. 466, 18 S. Ct. 418, 42 L. Ed. 819 (1898), in which the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether Nebraska could force its railroads to lower their shipping rates in an attempt to ease economic conditions for farmers. Carter, one of several prominent lawyers representing the railroads, maintained that the shipping charges should be determined not by the state but by "laissez-faire" economics and free competition, which would prevent the imposition of high rates. The Court struck down the law at issue as unconstitutional, but also set guidelines for rate regulation by the states so that future court challenges could be avoided.

Carter created somewhat of a stir among his fellow legal scholars when, in what initially appeared to be a drastic departure from his usual views, he joined a team of other prominent lawyers to defend the constitutionality of an Income Tax before the U.S. Supreme Court in pollock v. farmers' loan & trust co., 158 U.S. 601, 15 S. Ct. 912, 39 L. Ed. 1108 (1895). Carter argued that the legislature's action in passing the tax must be given due weight and should not be subject to review by a judicial tribunal. Just as government should play a limited role, he contended, the courts' role should be likewise restricted. He argued that the courts should refrain from engaging in "judicial lawmaking" and said, "nothing could be more unwise and dangerous—nothing more foreign to the spirit of the Constitution—than an attempt to baffle and defeat a popular determination by a judgment in a lawsuit … the only path to safety is to accept the voice of the majority as final." The Supreme Court went on to strike down the general income tax enacted by Congress and held that taxes on income derived from real estate and Personal Property constituted direct taxes and thus must be apportioned among the states according to population. The decision was effectively negated by the adoption and ratification in 1913 of the Sixteenth Amendment, which exempted income taxes from the Constitution's Apportionment requirement, but Pollock was nevertheless long remembered because of the fervor with which it was argued by Carter and the other attorneys involved.

After his retirement from the Practice of Law, Carter devoted his time to writing and studying and remained a popular lecturer until his death in 1905 at the age of seventy-eight.

Further readings

Congressional Quarterly. 1989. Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Elliott, Stephen P., ed. 1986. A Reference Guide to the United States Supreme Court. New York: Facts on File.

Grossman, Lewis A. 2002. "James Coolidge Carter and Mugwump Jurisprudence." Law and History Review (fall): 20 577–629.Johnson, John W., ed. 1992. Historic U.S. Court Cases, 1690–1990. New York: Garland.