Hornblower, William Butler

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Hornblower, William Butler

William Butler Hornblower was a noted corporate and trial lawyer who was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court but failed to win confirmation.

Hornblower was born May 13, 1851, in Paterson, New Jersey, with an unusually distinguished family background. His great-grandfather was a member of the Congress of the Confederation and a judge, his grandfather was a chief justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, his father was a noted theologian and pastor, and his mother was a descendant of Revolutionary leaders and colonial judges. In addition, one of his uncles was Joseph P. Bradley, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and another was Lewis B. Woodruff, a highly respected federal circuit court judge.

Hornblower was first educated at prestigious preparatory schools and in 1871 graduated with honors from the College of New Jersey (later known as Princeton University). At the encouragement of Bradley and Woodruff, he then entered Columbia University to study law. In 1875, he graduated with distinction, was admitted to the bar, and became a trial lawyer with the New York City firm of Caton and Eaton, where he had been a clerk while a law student. In 1888, he founded the firm of Hornblower and Byrne. Throughout his legal career, Hornblower represented a number of major corporate clients, including the New York Life Insurance Company; the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway Company; the New York Security and Trust Company; and several tobacco companies. He also served on many public commissions, held office in state and national bar associations, and was active in the Democratic Party.

In 1893, President grover cleveland nominated Hornblower to succeed Samuel Blatchford, who had died, as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Given his long and distinguished career, Hornblower appeared headed for easy confirmation, but a bitter political battle intervened to prevent Hornblower from taking the seat.

A year before his nomination to the Court, Hornblower had been appointed to a New York City Bar Association committee convened to investigate Judge Isaac H. Maynard. Maynard was accused of improper conduct in a contested election while he was deputy attorney general. The investigation ultimately led to Maynard's defeat for a seat on the New York Court of Appeals. David B. Hill, a powerful New York senator and a close friend of Maynard's, retaliated against Hornblower for his role in the investigation by vigorously campaigning against Hornblower's nomination. Hill's efforts were successful: the Senate rejected Hornblower's nomination by a vote of 30–24.

In 1895, President Cleveland nominated Hornblower for another vacancy on the Court. This time, Hornblower declined the nomination, citing the financial sacrifice he would incur if he left his very lucrative law practice.

"[T]he independence of the Judiciary is the keystone of our form of government, that if the keystone is removed the whole structure is in danger of disintegration and destruction."
—William Hornblower

In 1914, Hornblower was nominated to the New York Court of Appeals and was confirmed unanimously by the New York state senate. He took his seat on the court in March, but left after only one week owing to illness. He died two months later, on June 16, 1914, in Litchfield, Connecticut.