Joseph Philo Bradley (March 14, 1813-January 22, 1892), was an American jurist.
Bradley was born to humble beginnings in New York, and attended local schools. He began teaching at the age of 16, but was admitted to Rutgers University on the strength of his own studies, graduating from there in 1836. After graduation he was made Principal of the Millstone Academy.
Not long afterward, he was persuaded by his Rutgers classmate Frederick T. Frelinghuysen to join him in Newark and pursue legal studies at the Office of the Collector of the Port of Newark. He was admitted to the bar in 1839.
Bradley began in private practice in New Jersey, specializing in patent and railroad law, and he became very prominent in these fields and quite wealthy. Bradley remained dedicated to self study throughout his life and collected an extensive library. He also married in Newark, in 1844.
Bradley had occasion as a commercial lawyer to argue numerous cases before various national courts, earning him a wider reputation than he might otherwise have had. Thus in 1870 when a vacancy opened up on the Supreme Court, he was sufficiently well known by associates of President Grant to be recommended to him. He was nominated and confirmed by the Senate, taking his seat on the court on March 21, 1870. On moving to Washington, Bradley purchased the home that had previously belonged to Stephen A. Douglas.
Bradley remained on the bench until 1891, when he became greatly weakened by disease (possibly consumption). He took his seat on the bench in October of that year, but was forced to retire a few weeks later by failing health. He died a few months later.
Bradley took a very broad view of the national government's powers under the Commerce Clause and, but interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment rather narrowly, as did much of the rest of the court. He sided with the majority in the Slaughterhouse Cases, as well as the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, both of which limited the rights of Blacks against private discrimination.
Bradley dissented in Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad v. Minnesota, which though not racially motivated was another due process case arising from the Fourteenth Amendment. In his dissent, Bradley argued that the majority had in siding with the railroad created a situation where the reasonableness of an act of a state legislature was a judicial question, subjugating the legislature to the will of the judiciary. Bradley's opinion in this case is echoed in modern arguments regarding judicial activism.
Though he was considered an intelligent and forceful judge, Bradley is best remembered as being the 15th and final member of the Electoral Commission that decided the disputed 1876 presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden.
A Republican since the early days of the party, Bradley was not an obvious first choice. The four justices charged with selecting the fifth and final justice (who, all realized, would be the deciding vote on the commission as all 14 other members were strictly partisan) initially chose justice David Davis for the job, but as Davis had just been elected to the United States Senate he was unable to join. The justices then settled on Bradley. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, though it is evident that Bradley was thought by his colleagues to be the most politically neutral; the court overall at that time had more Republicans than Democrats, however.
Bradley wrote a number of opinions on the electoral commission and justified his votes to his own satisfaction; he sided with the Republicans on every case. Because of this he was vilified in the press and privately as well, even receiving a number of death threats at his home in Washington.
- Data drawn in part from the Supreme Court Historical Society (http://www.supremecourthistory.org|) and Oyez (http://www.oyez.org|).