The old federal circuit courts, established by the Judiciary Act of 1789, were staffed by U.S. Supreme Court justices sitting with the federal district court judges in each of the districts of their respective circuits. Until they were replaced in l891 by the modern circuit court system, these courts were the primary trial courts in the federal system as well as the primary forums for the resolution of major economic questions. Unless reversed by the Supreme Court, circuit court decisions remained final law for the circuit. As trial judges, Supreme Court justices travelling on circuit twice yearly also performed a key representative function, bringing national law to bear directly on the parties before them, along with the authority of the as-yet-distant government in Washington. On circuit the justices also learned of the practical needs of real people, knowledge they used to inform the deliberations of the Supreme Court when it assembled en banc in Washington. Given the right judge and the right circuit, circuit judging could become a creative legal enterprise.
So it was with Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story. Story transformed the First Judicial Circuit (comprising Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine after 1821) into his own laboratory for legal reform. There are many reasons for Story's success as a circuit judge: his unparalleled mastery of commercial and maritime law (the staple of his circuit); his personal association with many of the leading businessmen of New England; and his cooperative relationship with the lawyers who argued before him (many of whom, after 1829, had been his students at Harvard Law School). Equally important to Story's influence on his circuit was his personal and professional association with the federal district judges with whom he sat--one of whom was John Pitman of Rhode Island, who sat with Story from 1824 (when Pitman was appointed) until l845 (when Story died).
Despite their importance, too little is known about the early circuit courts, and particularly about the nature of the relationship between the Supreme Court justices on circuit and the district court judges with whom they sat: thus the importance of the Story-Pitman letters. One thing we do know, however, is that the relationship varied greatly from circuit to circuit, from judge to judge. As the correspondence makes clear, the association of Story and Pitman was harmonious and highly productive--indeed productive because it was harmonious. In fact, as these letters show, Story planned it that way. He followed Pitman's legal career as a lawyer in New England and New York closely, hand-picked him for the job of federal judge, and secured it for him by lobbying President Monroe personally.
Story's letters to Pitman deal mainly with circuit business, but as the bonds of mutual professional respect grew, so did personal friendship, which came to embrace the wives and children of both men. Most of the letters, even those primarily legal in nature, deal with personal and family matters. Health was a frequent topic, and Story's constant references chart his progressively serious bouts of illness, brought on by exhaustion from overwork. Story also comments frequently and candidly about national politics. Faced with radical abolition at home and a Jacksonian Supreme Court in Washington, his letters from the 1830s and 1840s reveal a deepening despair about the future of the Constitution and the Republic. In particular, the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island, which Story confronted with law-and-order-rulings from the circuit bench, generated a stream of gloomy comments about the dangers of "ultraism" that threatened his vision of the old republic. At Story's urging, Pitman--on the court and off-- allied with Story in hopes of holding back the forces of democratic change.
The central theme of Story's correspondence concerns his working relationship with Pitman on the Rhode Island circuit, where the court met twice yearly, alternately at Providence and Newport. As the man on the spot, Pitman was often in charge of arranging accommodations, although Story assumed duties of ordering wine, which he seems to have taken quite seriously. [Box 1, folder 23, July 1, 1843] Changes in the court's schedule, or Story's occasional absence, necessitated adjustments, which Pitman also handled; on rare occasions when Story was indisposed, Pitman sat alone. When he did, at times he requested and got Story's notes to help him. While Story's name appeared over all of the circuit court's decisions, it seems likely that Pitman played a role--perhaps as a sounding board for Story and especially as a knowledgeable expert on Rhode Island affairs.
While the correspondence tracks a constructive partnership, it also leaves little doubt that Story was the dominant partner. Many of his letters to Pitman in fact were answers to legal questions posed by Pitman in his letters to Story--questions arising from cases they heard jointly, or perhaps from cases in Pitman's federal district court. Pitman's queries were wide ranging: issues of court procedure, such as court costs and lawyer fees in equity cases, for example; or doctrinal questions regarding such matters as corporate fiduciary responsibilities in cases of defaulted bank notes; or damages owed to riparian land owners due to the construction of mill dams; or points of admiralty law regarding the rights of common seamen; or the law of slander; or questions relating to martial law emanating from the Dorr Rebellion. Sometimes Story's responses were brief; on other occasions his letters were extended essays. But whatever the subject, and no matter how busy he was, Story was invariably ready with a learned and gracious response, one which no doubt served as the basis for further discussion between the two men when they met. Reading these letters validates William Wirt's observation to a fellow lawyer, that having a legal paragon like Joseph Story in the neighborhood was a gift to be cherished. Pitman's letter of sympathy to Story's widow says it all: "I have lost the stay and staff of my age and one to whom I always went nor went in vain for advice and sympathy." (Pitman to Sarah W. Story, Sept. 21, 1845, Letters to Sarah W. Story, Phillips Library, Salem, MA).
By R. Kent Newmyer, Professor of Law and History, University of Connecticut School of Law, July 2012.