Why Collect Supreme Court Justices?
The three branches of the American government are Executive, Legislative and Judicial. By design of the Framers of the US Constitution, each branch exercises “checks and balances” over the others. This system of independent branches of government exercising sufficient control over the others, but in no way overpowering the others, is the cornerstone of American democracy.
In collecting US government-related autographs, the Executive Branch, headed by the President, is certainly the most popular of the three branches. The era of the Autopen and the press of modern times — including but not limited to security, heavy and often over-scheduling of hearings, fund-raising, speech-making, etc. — has made it a challenge to get a complete authentically signed set of any modern presidential Cabinet, Congress, and all of the US Senators and Representatives. Getting individual popular Senators and Representatives in authentic examples in any format is also often difficult unless you have an “in-person” opportunity. However, presently COVID-19 is severely limiting such chances.
However, with few exceptions, the “other” branch of government, the publicity-shy Supreme Court of The United States — whose deliberations are, unlike the other branches of government, shrouded in secret — is reasonably (and authentically) autographically accessible.
Why should a collector seek autographs of The Chief Justices of the United States (not “The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court”) and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court (not “Associate Justices of The United States”)? Why not?
Simply put, we are a nation deeply rooted in law. One of the major reasons for the American Revolution and seeking independence from Great Britain was because the American colonists felt that the British were treating the colonials as second-class citizens. As British subjects, the colonials felt that a citizen of Boston, Charleston or Philadelphia was entitled to the same rights and protections under the King’s law as citizens of London, Portsmouth or Bristol.
The rule of law in America was established in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and it is the Supreme Court which for over two hundred years has held that no person, including the President and Members of Congress, was above the law. Celebrated Supreme Court decisions like Marbury v. Madison, Dred Scott, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, United States v. Nixon, Miranda, Roe v. Wade, Bush v. Gore, etc., reflect the crises of American growth and development.
The Court’s decisions are rendered by human beings, some bland and relatively unknown (for example Alfred Moore, Peter Daniel, William Cushing, George Sutherland, and Stanley Reed) and some brilliant and almost “household names” (like John Marshall, Joseph Story, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Louis Brandeis, and Benjamin Cardozo).
Many of the Justices has other interesting careers in public service before or after coming to the bench. Names such as John Jay, Salmon P. Chase, William H. Taft, Charles Evans Hughes, Fred Vinson, and Earl Warren amongst the Chief Justices can be found in other collections: amongst the Associates Justices, James Wilson, Smith Thompson, John McLean, Levi Woodbury, David Davis, L.Q.C. Lamar, William R. Day, Hugo Black, Harold Burton, Tom C. Clark, Arthur Goldberg and others may also be included under other autograph collecting categories… look them up in an encyclopedia and see for yourself!
Regarding costs and values, a word of caution: For those seeking to collect an entire set of Chief and Associate Justices, it is not as easy as one might think! There is a near “Button Gwinett” (Georgia Signer of the Declaration of Independence, the scarcest and most valuable American autograph) or two our there! I was asked to write an article for the Manuscript Society’s Autograph Collector’s Checklist (pub. 1990) and what mostly was rare then is even rarer today; moreover, there are more collectors today then 20+ years ago with fewer opportunities to pick up rare items at low prices.
Honors for the scarcest Justice, autographically speaking, go to Alfred Moore (noted above in the “bland” category). Moore was active in North Carolina state legal and political life before and after the Revolution and served as Attorney General of the state before being appointed to the Court by President John Adams. He served from October 1799 until he resigned at age 48 in February of 1804; he died in October 1810. I have but one signature of his in my collection and that was secured privately. I have never seen anything of Moore’s offered for public sale. Does he exist “out there” somewhere? Surely he must… but where? That is your challenge. and half the fun, in collecting a full set of Supreme Court autographs.
Others of some rarity include William Cushing, James Iredell, Thomas Johnson and William Paterson, members of the first Supreme Court, appointed by George Washington. Relatively uncommon 19th Century Justices include William Johnson, Horace Lurton, Philip P. Barbour, and Joseph P. Lamar; tougher 20th Century Justices include John H. Clarke, Edward Sanford and, interestingly, the late Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts on the present Court as well as recent Trump-appointed Justices.
Like every other institution of government, the autopen has lurked in the background on occasion, but while available for all Justices, not all use it and those that use it do so not all of the time. As a rule, when an Associate Justice or Chief Justice has not wished to use a machine, at least you could expect an authentic signature. I am not aware of any instance where a secretary or clerk signed correspondence for a sitting Justice using the Justice’s name.
The Autopen has been used to some extent by Chief Justices Warren Burger and William Rehnquist, and by Associate Justices Thurgood Marshall, William Brennan and Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and several others sporadically. Justice Ginsburg in her last few years on the Court declined all autograph requests. Also, it appears that there are “secretarial” signatures of Justices also appearing.
Regarding value, prices can range from the thousands perhaps for an Alfred Moore or for a few of the other scarce jurists mentioned, down to approximately $20 for signatures of others. The least expensive would include, to name a few, Tom Clark, Owen Roberts, Stanley Reed and a few recent members of the Court. Autographs (cut signatures on up) of a majority of those who now serve or have served on the Court can be found for under $60 apiece. Some may be had for the price of a postage stamp, a nice letter, and a self-addressed stamped return envelope!
If you do not have a burning desire (or the resources to match said desire) to join in the quest for Alfred Moore or the other scarcer and therefore more expensive Justices, one should put together a fine set of the Chiefs (only 17, 6 also having served as Associate Justices), or perhaps just a nice set of the “Greats”, the Court during the Civil War, the “Jewish Justices”, or whatever grouping one might create.
Collecting autographs of the Chief Justices and the Associate Justices has been a great deal of fun for me. I am delighted that acquiring a complete set is such a rare feat. I truly felt the thrill of victory when in the same week that I purchased an Alfred Moore signature, the then newest member of the Court, now retired Justice David Souter, provided me with his autograph and my collection was complete. Since then, I have been fortunate to keep the collection current and entire.
I recall with pride the first time I visited the Court on a college trip to Washington, being awestruck by the beauty and solemnity of the Court and its traditions. I am, I admit, a lawyer by profession, having gone to law school in Washington DC and been admitted to the Bar of the District of Columbia. I well remember being sworn in as a member of the Bar of the Supreme Court by the then Solicitor General of the United States Erwin Griswold, the oath being administered by then Associate Justice Rehnquist. And I remember the thrill as a young lawyer participating in the drafting of an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief and sitting at the counsel table during oral arguments before the Court. Today, I write this article with the thrill of a collector of autographs of the Chief Justices of the United States and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. I hope I have adequately conveyed enough of this enjoyment to encourage you to join me in this fascinating area of autograph collecting.