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Levi Woodbury served on the U.S. Supreme Court as an associate justice from 1845 to 1851. Woodbury's career encompassed a range of positions in state and federal government. By the time of his nomination by President james k. polk, he had served as a state judge, governor, U.S. senator, and secretary of both the U.S. Navy and Treasury. A lifelong advocate of States' Rights, this position guided him throughout his brief tenure on the Court. He rarely stood out except in the occasional instance when he dissented. A proponent of Slavery, he worried about the Court's potential for exacerbating national tensions over the volatile issue.
Woodbury was born on December 22, 1789, in Francestown, New Hampshire. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1809 and then studied at the Litchfield Law School. After his admission to the New Hampshire bar in 1812, he began practicing law while gradually preparing himself for politics. In 1816, he served as clerk of the state senate, and in 1817 he entered the judiciary as associate justice of the New Hampshire Superior Court.
Woodbury was passionate about states' rights, the cause of the Jeffersonian Republicans. His marriage in 1819 to Elizabeth Clapp, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, helped to advance his aspirations, and in 1823 he won election as governor of New Hampshire. In 1825, he became speaker of the state House of Representatives and then served two terms as a U.S. senator, from 1825 to 1831 and from 1841 to 1845. During the interim, he served twice in the cabinet of President Andrew Jackson: first as U.S. secretary of the Navy (1831–1834) and then as U.S. secretary of the Treasury (1834–1841), a position he also held for the first four years of Martin Van Buren's administration.
"I carry with me, as a controlling principle, the proposition that State powers, State rights, and State decisions are to be upheld when the objection to them is not clear."
In 1845, Polk chose Woodbury to fill the vacancy left by the death of Justice Joseph Story. The Court was led by Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, whom Woodbury often joined in decisions. Notably, he generally agreed with the majority on the Taney Court in its reading of the U.S. Constitution's Contract Clause (Article I, Section 10, Clause 1). The Contract Clause, which bars the states from passing laws that impair the obligations of contracts, was an important subject of constitutional interpretation during the era, and the Court invoked it in order to limit the power of states to regulate business and economic matters.
Woodbury left no landmark opinions. However, he occasionally dissented when he thought the Court was trampling the rights of states: He dissented from the Court's decisions to extend the boundaries of federal jurisdiction over national waters and, in the so-called Passenger Cases of 1849, to strike down state laws that provided for taxing immigrants upon their arrival.
Woodbury died on September 4, 1851, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Bader, William D., Henry J. Abraham, and James B. Staab. 1994. "The Jurisprudence of Levi Woodbury." Vermont Law Review 18 (winter).
Cole, Donald B. 1970. Jacksonian Democracy in New Hampshire, 1800–1851. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.