Blair, John, Jr.

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Blair, John, Jr.

John Blair Jr., was among the original members of the U.S. Supreme Court. Nominated by President George Washington, Blair began his term as an associate justice shortly after the Court's establishment on February 2, 1790. Considered a fair-minded, incorruptible jurist, he remained on the bench for six years.

Blair was born in 1732 into a wealthy, well-established Virginia family. His parents were John Blair Sr., a public official with important political connections, and Mary Munro (or Monro) Blair, whose father was a rector in Virginia's St. John's Parish. In 1754, Blair graduated from the College of William and Mary (founded by his great-uncle), and he then studied law at Oxford's Middle Temple, in London.

In 1756 Blair returned to Virginia with his Scottish wife, Jean Balfour, and began a successful law practice in Williamsburg. He served in the House of Burgesses as a representative of William and Mary from 1766 to 1770. (The House of Burgesses was a colonial assembly of elected officials and the governor.) He served as clerk of the governor's council from 1770 to 1775. Blair attended the Virginia Constitutional Convention and the Virginia Privy Council in 1776. (The Privy Council was an advisory group to the English monarchy.)

Before his ascension to the U.S. Supreme Court, Blair performed judicial duties for various state courts. He became a judge on the newly established Virginia General Court in 1778. In 1780, he became chancellor of the high court of chancery and was appointed to Virginia's first court of appeals.

In the 1782 chancery case Commonwealth v. Caton, 8 Va. (4 Call) 5, Blair concluded that courts were entitled to review state legislation and to invalidate any laws found unconstitutional. The legal concept of judicial review—whereby the courts examine legislative acts and determine their constitutionality—was later embraced fully by the U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark case marbury v. madison, 5 U.S. 137, 2 L. Ed. 60 (1803).

In 1787 Blair served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Soon afterward he was appointed to the Virginia Court of Appeals. Blair received his greatest judicial honor when President Washington nominated him, along with five other men, to the first High Court on September 24, 1789. (At the time, only six justices sat on the Supreme Court. By 1869 the number had risen to nine.) Blair was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on September 26, 1789.

"Being called upon for an account of what Money i may have in Hand belonging to his Majesty, i have only to say that i have not any."
—John Blair Jr.

As an associate justice, Blair took part in chisholm v. georgia, 2 U.S. 419, 1 L. Ed. 440 (1793), the Supreme Court's first major opinion. The issue before the Court was state sovereignty and whether a citizen of one state could sue another state in federal court over a disputed claim. The Supreme Court ruled that under Article III, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, a citizen of one state could indeed sue another state in federal court.

Many states decried the outcome of Chisholm, fearing lawsuits that would lead to economic disaster. Four years after the decision was handed down, Congress ratified the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited citizens of one state from suing another state without the consent of the defendant state. The amendment in effect overturned Chisholm.

Until the 1860s, U.S. Supreme Court justices sat on a circuit court as well as the High Court. In Hayburn's Case, 2 U.S. 408, 1 L. Ed. 436 (1792), Blair broke new ground as a federal appeals judge by ruling that a congressional act ordering circuit judges to serve as Pension commissioners was unconstitutional. Blair noted that the supervision of a federal pension plan was not a judicial duty. He ruled that the designation of circuit judges as administrators violated the separation-of-powers doctrine.

Blair retired from the High Court on January 27, 1796, citing the stress of serving on both the Supreme Court and the circuit court, which in Blair's case stretched from New Jersey to Virginia. He died in his native Williamsburg at age sixty-eight, in 1800.

Further readings

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

Cushman, Claire, ed. 1993. The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1993. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

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