Horace Harmon Lurton

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Horace Harmon Lurton
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
In office
December 20, 1909 – July 12, 1914[1]
Nominated byWilliam Taft
Preceded byRufus Peckham
Succeeded byJames McReynolds
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
In office
March 27, 1893 – December 20, 1909
Nominated byGrover Cleveland
Preceded byHowell Jackson
Succeeded byLoyal Knappen
Personal details
Born(1844-02-26)February 26, 1844
Newport, Kentucky, U.S.
DiedJuly 12, 1914(1914-07-12) (aged 70)
Atlantic City, New Jersey, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
EducationDouglas University (BA)
Cumberland University (LLB)
Military service
Allegiance Confederate States
Service/branch Confederate States Army
Years of service1861–1864
RankFirst Lieutenant
UnitTennessee 5th Tennessee Infantry
Kentucky 2nd Kentucky Cavalry
Kentucky 3rd Kentucky Cavalry[2]
Battles/warsAmerican Civil War

Horace Harmon Lurton (February 26, 1844 – July 12, 1914) was an American jurist who served for four years as a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Appointed at the age of 65, Lurton was the oldest justice to be appointed to the Court for the first time.[a]

Justice Lurton, bottom left, with his home in Nashville, his wife, center, and children


Lurton was born in Newport, Kentucky, the son of a physician turned clergyman. He was a Sergeant Major in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, serving in the 5th Tennessee Infantry, 2nd Kentucky Infantry, and 3rd Kentucky Cavalry. He was twice captured by Union forces, the second time sent as a prisoner of war to Johnson's Island Prison Camp in Sandusky Bay, Ohio. He claimed he was later paroled by President Lincoln because of pleas for mercy from his mother but this was merely an anecdote he often repeated to dinner guests, according to historian Roger Long. Mr. Long explains in detail what the evidence shows in an article he wrote in the December 1994 edition of Civil War Times. According to Mr. Long, apparently he was paroled from Johnson's Island only when he signed the oath of allegiance, not because of any act of the president. Mr Long's article includes interesting details about Lurton's service as well as possible reasons for the anecdote he was so fond of repeating.

Lurton was a family friend of noted historian and jurist Samuel Cole Williams.

Education and early practice[edit]

Before the war, Lurton attended Douglas University and earned an LL.B. in 1867 at Cumberland School of Law, then part of Cumberland University but now part of Samford University. At Cumberland he was a member of Beta Theta Pi. Lurton then practiced law in Clarksville, Tennessee.

Career as a judge[edit]

In 1875, Lurton left private practice after being chosen as a judge of the Tennessee Chancery Court for the Sixth Chancery Division. After three years, Lurton then returned to his practice until 1886, when he was appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

In 1893, Lurton was appointed by President Grover Cleveland to a federal appellate judgeship on the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. While still on that court, Lurton first taught at and later served as dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Law from 1905 to 1909.

Supreme Court service[edit]

In 1909, Lurton's friend, President William Howard Taft, named him to a seat on the Supreme Court that had been vacated by the death of Justice Rufus Wheeler Peckham. It was the first of Taft's five Supreme Court appointments, six if one counts the elevation of Edward White to Chief Justice, and surprised some observers because unlike Taft, Lurton was a Democrat. Taft's attorney general George W. Wickersham said that at 66, Lurton was too old to become a Supreme Court justice, but Taft had always admired him. According to the Complete Book of U.S. Presidents (2001 edition), Taft later said that "the chief pleasure of my administration" was the appointment of Lurton.

Lurton sided most frequently on the court with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.,[3] a progressive Supreme Court justice. The most notable opinion he authored was probably the opinion of the Court in Coyle v. Smith, 221 U.S. 559 (1911), which held that the federal government could not tell a state where to locate its capital, as that all states must be on "equal footing."

Lurton took his seat on the Court at the beginning of 1910. His tenure on the Court was brief, as he served only four years before dying in Atlantic City, New Jersey of a sudden heart attack, in 1914. According to his obituary in The New York Times (July 13, 1914, p. 1), he had been in poor health since the previous December, suffering from asthma and then pneumonia.

Legacy and honors[edit]

During World War II the Liberty ship SS Horace H. Lurton was built in Brunswick, Georgia, and named in his honor.[4]


  1. ^ Charles Evans Hughes was two years older when appointed as Chief Justice by Herbert Hoover, but had served five years on the Court between the ages of forty-eight and fifty-three


  1. ^ "Federal Judicial Center: Horace Harmon Lurton". 2009-12-12. Archived from the original on 2009-05-13. Retrieved 2009-12-12.
  2. ^ "Compiled service records of Confederate Soldiers who served in organizations from the State of Kentucky". National Archives. Retrieved 25 February 2018.
  3. ^ http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entry.php?rec=814
  4. ^ Williams, Greg H. (25 July 2014). The Liberty Ships of World War II: A Record of the 2,710 Vessels and Their Builders, Operators and Namesakes, with a History of the Jeremiah O’Brien. McFarland. ISBN 1476617546. Retrieved 9 December 2017.

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Howell Jackson
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
Succeeded by
Loyal Knappen
Preceded by
Rufus Peckham
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Succeeded by
James McReynolds