Robert Cooper Grier

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Robert Cooper Grier
Robert Cooper Grier - Brady-Handy.jpg
Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court
In office
August 4, 1846[1] – January 31, 1870
Nominated by James K. Polk
Preceded by Henry Baldwin
Succeeded by William Strong
Personal details
Born (1794-03-05)March 5, 1794
Cumberland County, Pennsylvania
Died September 25, 1870(1870-09-25) (aged 76)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Political party Jacksonian, Democratic
Religion Presbyterian

Robert Cooper Grier (March 5, 1794 – September 25, 1870), was an American jurist who served on the Supreme Court of the United States.

Early life, education, and career[edit]

Grier was born in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania to a Presbyterian minister, who tutored him until he entered Dickinson College. Grier graduated from Dickinson in only one year, receiving a B.A. in 1812, and remained there as an instructor until taking a position at a school his father ran. He succeeded his father as headmaster in 1815.

While a teacher, Grier read law on his own time, and passed the bar in 1817, at which time he entered private practice in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania until 1818, and then in Danville, Pennsylvania until 1833. Grier married Isabelle Rose in 1829 and the couple had one child.

Grier was a political organizer for the Jacksonians in the Democrats. In 1833 Grier was rewarded with a patronage appointment to a judgeship on the Pennsylvania state District Court for Allegheny County, newly created for him. He served there for 13 years, developing a reputation for competence.

Federal judicial service[edit]

Engraving of Robert Cooper Grier while serving as Justice of the Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Henry Baldwin died in 1844 during the administration of President Tyler. Tyler made two attempted appointments to the seat, Edward King and John M. Read, but the Senate confirmed neither, so the seat remained vacant when James K. Polk became president in March, 1845. Polk also made two nominations, one of whom refused the appointment (future President James Buchanan), and the Senate refused to confirm George Washington Woodward. Polk finally nominated Grier on August 3, 1846, plucking him from relative obscurity. The Senate unanimously approved Grier on August 4, 1846, and he received his commission the same day, joining fellow Dickinson alumnus, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, on the Court.

In 1854, the United States House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee conducted an investigation of Grier's conduct in connection with a case then pending before the United States Supreme Court, Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company.[2] Allegations were that Grier solicited a bribe in order to rule in favor of one of the parties, ignored the law in making his ruling, and leaked the Court's decision early in order to favor one of the parties (who was considering dismissal of the case).[3] Ultimately, the House Judiciary Committee issued a report dismissing the allegations leveled against Grier, stating that Grier "is entirely and absolutely exonerated and freed from the charges preferred against him. There is absolutely nothing which can or will impair his reputation as a judge or an upright and honest man."[4] Nonetheless, the Committee's report is intriguing because it was authored by Hendrick B. Wright, who was a fellow Dickinson alumnus and defeated for reelection in the next Congress, indications of probable bias in the justice's favor.[5] Thus, it is unclear whether Grier was guilty of the allegations leveled against him.

Three years later, Grier was one of two Northerners to side with the majority in the controversial Dred Scott decision, which denied civil rights to slaves and threatened to open the entire nation to slavery. Some critics[who?] suspected Grier co-ordinated his actions with his distant cousin Alexander H. Stephens, a U.S. congressman from Georgia who strongly defended slavery and later beceme vice president of the Confederacy.[citation needed] But Stephens biographer Thomas E. Schott considered this unlikely since the two men were not close.[citation needed] Grier did leak the decision of the case early to President James Buchanan,[citation needed] who alluded to its outcome[disputed ] in his 1857 inaugural address.[6]

During the Civil War, Grier discontinued circuit riding in 1862, and in 1863 wrote the opinion on the Prize Cases, which declared Lincoln's blockade of Southern ports constitutional.


Grier married his wife, Isabelle Rose, in 1829, and they had five daughters and one son. Isabelle Rose survived her husband by 15 years, and five of their daughters also survived their father. However, U.S. Army doctor William Potter Grier (b. 1834) died in a steamship explosion in 1866.[7]

Death and Legacy[edit]

Despite three strokes in 1867, Grier served on the court until 1870, at which point he was quite frail and drastically limited his participation on the court. Grier retired only after his colleagues pressed him to do so, ending his judicial service on January 31, 1870. He died less than a year later, in Philadelphia. Justice Grier is buried with his wife, son, two daughters, and a granddaughter who died in infancy in 1863 in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.[8]

Further reading[edit]

  • Wisniewski, Daniel J., "Heating Up a Case Gone Cold: Revisiting the Charges of Bribery and Official Misconduct Made Against Supreme Court Justice Robert Cooper Grier in 1854-55," in Journal of Supreme Court History (Supreme Court Historical Society: 2013) Volume 38, No. 1, pp. 1–19.
  • Gatell, Frank Otto, "Robert C. Grier," in Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. Volume: 2 (1997) pp 435–45.


  1. ^ "Federal Judicial Center: Robert Cooper Grier". 2009-12-09. Retrieved 2009-12-09. 
  2. ^ Wisniewski, Daniel J., "Heating Up a Case Gone Cold: Revisiting the Charges of Bribery and Official Misconduct Made Against Supreme Court Justice Robert Cooper Grier in 1854-55," in Journal of Supreme Court History (Supreme Court Historical Society: 2013) Volume 38, No. 1, pp. 1-19.
  3. ^ Wisniewski, pp. 8-12.
  4. ^ Wisniewski, p. 5.
  5. ^ Wisniewski, pp. 6-8.
  6. ^ Hall, Timothy L. (2001). Supreme Court justices: a biographical dictionary. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing. p. 566
  7. ^
  8. ^

Data drawn in part from the Supreme Court Historical Society and Oyez.

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Henry Baldwin
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
August 4, 1846 – January 31, 1870
Succeeded by
William Strong