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Robert Trimble served as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1826 until his death in 1828. A prominent Kentucky attorney and judge, Trimble was a strong nationalist who supported the views of Chief Justice John Marshall.
Trimble was born on November 17, 1776, in Augusta County, Virginia. His family moved to central Kentucky when Trimble was a young boy. He was educated at the Kentucky Academy in Woodford County, Kentucky, before reading the law with two prominent attorneys in the area. He was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1800 and established a lucrative law practice in Paris, Kentucky.
"The illustrious framers of the Constitution could not be ignorant that there were, or might be, many contracts without obligation, and many obligations without contracts."
In 1802 Trimble was elected to the Kentucky legislature. In 1807 he was appointed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals. He resigned in 1809 to return to his law practice. In 1813 Trimble was appointed U.S. district attorney and then returned to the bench when President James Madison named him a U.S. district judge in 1817. In 1820 Trimble also served on a boundary commission that settled a dispute between Kentucky and Tennessee.
President John Quincy Adams appointed Trimble to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1826, making him the first U.S. district judge to serve on the Court. Trimble's nomination did not go smoothly, however, as he encountered opposition from the Kentucky congressional delegation. The opposition was based on Trimble's nationalist views, which ran counter to the States' Rights position of the Kentucky legislators. Despite the opposition Trimble was confirmed.
Trimble joined the Court at a time when Chief Justice Marshall's nationalist philosophy was dominant. The Court's preference for construing federal powers broadly aroused concerns that the federal government would become too powerful and upset the balance of power between it and the states. During his brief time on the Court, Trimble adhered to the nationalist philosophy, emphasizing the supremacy of federal laws over state laws. He did, however, differ from Marshall in Ogden v. Saunders, 25 U.S. (12 Wheat.) 213, 6 L. Ed. 606 (1827). Trimble ruled that a state Bankruptcy law that applied to debts incurred after the passage of the statute did not violate the Contract Clause in Article I of the U.S. Constitution. Marshall disagreed and issued his only judicial dissent.
Trimble died on August 25, 1828, in Paris, Kentucky.