John C. Catron was born January 7, 1786 in Virginia to German immigrant parents.
His father was a veteran of the Revolutionary War.
His family relocated to Kentucky just after 1800.
Catron served in the War of 1812 under Andrew Jackson. After the war, in 1815, he became an attorney in Tennessee.
From 1824-1834, Catron was appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals, being elevated to Chief Justice of that court in 1831.
In 1834, the Tennessee state legislature abolished the chief justice position, and Catron retired and returned to private practice in Nashville.
During the election of 1836, Catron directed Martin Van Buren’s presidential campaign in Tennessee against native son Hugh Lawson White.
In 1836 Congress expanded the United States Supreme Court from seven to nine members. This allowed then-President Andrew Jackson an opportunity to name two new justices on March 3, 1837, his last full day in office.
Catron was the only one of Jackson’s nominees to accept. The newly seated Senate confirmed Catron’s appointment five days later.
John Catron took the judicial oath on May 1, 1837.
Catron, a slaveholder all his adult life, supported slavery and sided with the majority in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case which may have helped precipitate the Civil War.
Catron, however, opposed secession and urged Tennessee to remain with the Union. For a brief time after Tennessee seceded from the Union but prior to Nashville being occupied by Federal troops, Catron left his residence in Nashville and temporarily lived in Louisville, Kentucky.
In 1863, Congress added a tenth justice to the Supreme Court.
John Catron died May 30, 1865 at the age of 79.
Upon Catron’s death, Congress eliminated his seat from the Supreme Court under the Judicial Circuits Act as a way to prevent President Andrew Johnson from appointing any new justices.
Then in 1866, at the behest of Chief Justice Chase, Congress passed an act providing that the next three justices to retire would not be replaced, which would thin the bench to seven justices by attrition. Consequently, one seat was removed in 1866 and a second in 1867.
In 1869, however, the Circuit Judges Act returned the number of justices to nine, where it has since remained.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to expand the Court in 1937. His proposal envisioned appointment of one additional justice for each incumbent justice who reached the age of 70 years 6 months and refused retirement, up to a maximum bench of 15 justices. The proposal was ostensibly to ease the burden of the docket on elderly judges, but the actual purpose was widely understood as an effort to pack the Court with justices who would support Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The plan, usually called the “Court-packing Plan”, failed in Congress.
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