Robert Cooper Grier
Robert Cooper Grier served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1846 to 1870. Grier is best remembered for his unusual actions during the deliberation of DRED SCOTT V. SANDFORD, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393, 15 L. Ed. 691 (1857).
Grier was born March 5, 1794, in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Dickinson College in 1812 and was admitted to the bar in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1817. A year later, he relocated to Danville, Pennsylvania, and established a successful law practice. In 1833, he was appointed judge of the Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, district court, where he remained until 1846.
With the death in 1844 of Supreme Court justice HENRY BALDWIN, who was a Pennsylvania native, President JAMES POLK sought to appoint a Democrat from that state. After failing to find a candidate who could pass Senate confirmation, Polk turned in 1846 to the noncontroversial and relatively unknown Grier.
During his term on the Supreme Court, Grier held a centrist position. A strong believer in STATES' RIGHTS, he generally was opposed to federal legislation that intruded on state POLICE POWERS. This philosophy led him to side with the Southern states in upholding their right to keep slaves and to recapture runaway slaves who had escaped to Northern states.
Grier has been criticized for his actions during the deliberation of Dred Scott, generally recognized as the most important pre–Civil War case concerning the legitimacy of SLAVERY and the rights of African Americans. The circumstances of the ruling as well as the ruling itself increased the division between the Northern and Southern states.
Dred Scott was a slave owned by an army surgeon, John Emerson, who resided in Missouri. In 1836, Emerson took Scott to Fort Snelling, in what is now Minnesota but was then a territory in which slavery had been expressly forbidden by the Missouri Compromise legislation of 1820. In 1846, Scott sued for his freedom in Missouri state court, arguing that his residence in a free territory released him from slavery. The Missouri Supreme Court rejected his argument, and Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Grier and the other members of the Court heard arguments on Dred Scott in 1855 and 1856. A key issue was whether African Americans could be citizens of the United States, even if they were not slaves. Grier did not want to address the citizenship issue, but other justices who were Southerners wanted the Court's vote
to transcend sectional lines. Justice JOHN CATRON took the unusual and unethical step of asking President JAMES BUCHANAN to lobby Grier on this issue. Buchanan wrote to Grier, who in turn breached the separation between the executive and judicial branches by replying to the president. Grier agreed to side with the majority, which held that there was no power under the Constitution to grant African Americans citizenship. Grier set out in detail how the Court would rule on the case. Buchanan, in his inaugural address on March 4, 1857, mentioned the case. When the decision was released two days later, opponents of the decision attributed the president's remarks to inside information provided by Chief Justice ROGER B. TANEY.In fact, Grier was the informer.
Although Grier was sympathetic to Southern concerns, he remained a Unionist. During
the Civil War, Grier voted to support the power of the president to enforce a blockade of the Confederate shoreline. The Prize cases, 67 U.S. 635, 17 L. Ed. 459; 70 U.S. 451, 18 L. Ed. 197; 70 U.S. 514, 18 L. Ed. 200; 70 U.S. 559, 18 L. Ed. 220 (1863), involved the disposition of vessels captured by the Union navy during the blockade of Southern ports ordered by President ABRAHAM LINCOLN in the absence of a congressional declaration of war. Under existing laws of war, the Union could claim the vessels as property only if the conflict was a declared war. The Supreme Court rejected prior law and ruled that the president has the authority to resist force without the need for special legislative action. Grier noted that the "[p]resident was bound to meet [the Civil War] in the shape it presented itself, without waiting for the Congress to baptize it with a name; and no name given to it by him or them could change the fact."
Grier's health began to fail in 1867. He retired in 1870, after members of the Court requested that he resign because he could no longer carry out his duties. He died on September 25, 1870, in Philadelphia.