John Appleton was a prominent nineteenth-century Maine lawyer and judge. He served as a justice and chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court from 1852 to 1883. During his long tenure he came to be recognized for his opposition to state laws that granted loans or tax exemptions to businesses. His belief in free market capitalism translated into minimal government regulation of business and no government breaks for business. In addition Appleton concerned himself with rethinking common law rules of evidence.
Appleton was born on July 12, 1804, in New Ipswich, New Hampshire. He graduated from Bowdoin College—where his uncle, Jesse Appleton, was president—in 1822 and then apprenticed himself to a New Hampshire lawyer to gain the knowledge needed to become a member of the bar. Appleton was admitted to the bar in 1826 and moved to Sebec, Maine, to start a private practice. Maine had been admitted to the Union in 1820 and was a growing, prosperous state. Appleton moved again to Bangor in 1838 and continued his private law practice. A great reader of philosophy and law, Appleton was attracted to the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. An interest in the law from a purely intellectual viewpoint led him to pursue a judgeship.
In 1841 he was appointed the reporter of decisions for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, the state's highest court. In this capacity Appleton edited the opinions of the justices, which gave him valuable insights into the workings of an appellate court. His diligence and intellectual esteem led to his appointment as a justice of the court in 1852. Eleven years later he was elevated to chief justice, a position he held for the next 31 years. Apart from his judicial opinions, Appleton published in 1860 a treatise entitled The Rules of Evidence, Stated and Discussed.
Appleton's opinions from the early 1870s on the proper relationship between government and business have come to be regarded as groundbreaking expressions of laissez-faire constitutionalism. After the Civil War state governments had rushed to give railroads and other businesses tax exemptions, loans, and property easements. When the town of Jay sought legislative authority to lend $10,000 to private entrepreneurs to move their mill and factory to the town, the legislature sought an Advisory Opinion from Maine's supreme court. In a bluntly worded opinion, Appleton declared that the legislature had no authority to help private businesses through gifts or loans. When the legislature ignored this opinion and authorized the funding, Appleton issued an opinion ruling the act unconstitutional. Appleton's analysis fore-shadowed the Substantive Due Process doctrine that the U.S. Supreme Court employed to strike down government regulations of business.
Appleton finally retired in 1883. He died on February 7, 1891, in Bangor, Maine.
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