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Gabriel Duvall

Gabriel Duvall
Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court
In office
November 23, 1811 – January 12, 1835
Nominated by James Madison
Preceded by Samuel Chase
Succeeded by Philip Pendleton Barbour
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Maryland's 2nd district
In office
November 11, 1794 – March 28, 1796
Preceded by John Francis Mercer
Succeeded by Richard Sprigg, Jr.
Personal details
Born (1752-12-06)December 6, 1752
Prince Georges County, Maryland
Died March 6, 1844(1844-03-06) (aged 91)
Glenn Dale, Maryland
Political party Whig
Spouse(s) Florence "Ellen" Adams Washburne Duvall
Religion Reformed

Gabriel Duvall (December 6, 1752 – March 6, 1844) was an American politician and jurist. Duvall was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1811 to 1835 during the tenure of Chief Justice John Marshall. Previously, Duvall was the Comptroller of the Treasury, a Maryland state court judge, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maryland, and a Maryland state legislator.

Whether Duvall is deserving of the title of "the most insignificant" Justice in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court has been the subject of much academic interest, most notably a debate between University of Chicago Law Professors David P. Currie and (now-Judge) Frank H. Easterbrook in 1983. Currie argued that "impartial examination of Duvall's performance reveals to even the uninitiated observer that he achieved an enviable standard of insignificance against which all other Justices must be measured."[1] Easterbrook responded that Currie's analysis lacked "serious consideration of candidates so shrouded in obscurity that they escaped proper attention even in a contest of insignificance," and concluded that Duvall's colleague, Justice Thomas Todd, was even more insignificant.[2]


  • Early life 1
  • Career 2
  • Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court 3
    • Majority opinions 3.1
    • Concurrences 3.2
    • Dissents 3.3
  • Death 4
  • Significance 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10

Early life

Born in read law to enter the Bar in 1778.[3]

There is some uncertainty over the spelling of Duvall's name. As Prof. Currie notes:

In the teeth of annual flyleaf notations by Reporters Cranch, Wheaton, and Peters uniformly employing the form "Duvall," Marshall's biographer, Albert Beveridge, stubbornly insisted, without citation of authority, on spelling the name with a single "l." Mr. Dilliard,[4] however, who for some unaccountable reason actually traced the family history, concluded persuasively that the original "DuVal" or "Duval" employed in earlier generations had become "Duvall" before the future Justice was born. I therefore am inclined to dismiss Mr. Beveridge's contrary view as the effort of a partisan observer unable to resist making his favorite appear more forgotten than he actually was.[5]


Duvall was a clerk for the Maryland Council of Safety (which managed the state militia) from 1775 to 1777, and for the Maryland House of Delegates from 1777 to 1781.[3]

He participated in the American Revolutionary War, first as a Mustermaster and commissary of stores in 1776, then as a private in the Maryland militia, where he fought in the battles of Brandywine and Morristown.[6] He was a Commissioner to preserve confiscated British property from 1781 to 1782, then a member of Maryland Governor's Council from 1782 to 1785.[7]

He was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates, serving there from 1787 to 1794.[3] He served one term as a U.S. Representative from the second district of Maryland, from November 11, 1794, to March 28, 1796.[3] He was then Chief Justice of the Maryland General Court from 1796 to 1802, and was the first U.S. Comptroller of the Treasury from 1802 to 1811.[3]

Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

On November 15, 1811, Duvall was nominated by President James Madison to an Associate Justice seat on the Supreme Court of the United States vacated by fellow Marylander Samuel Chase.[8] John Quincy Adams was Madison's first choice for this seat, but he declined, finding his services as a diplomat in Russia more rewarding and more useful to the United States. Duvall was confirmed by the United States Senate on November 18, 1811, and received his commission the same day.[8]

In the twenty-three years he sat on the Supreme Court, Duvall penned an opinion in only eighteen cases: fifteen majority opinions, two concurrence, and one dissent.[9]

He served until January 12, 1835, when he resigned due to old age. According to one of Chief Justice Marshall's biographers, Duvall "became distinguished for holding on to his seat for many years after he had become aged and infirm because he was fearful of who would replace him, thus inaugurating what has become a popular tradition for subsequent Supreme Court Justices."[10] According to his biographer, Irving Dillard, in his last few years on the Court, Duvall was "so deaf as to be unable to participate in conversation."[11] Prof. Currie retorts that: "There is no proof ... that Duvall was either deaf or unable to speak while on the Court".[12]

Majority opinions

In his twenty-four years on the Court, Duvall authored fifteen majority opinions: Freeland v. Heron, Lenox & Co. (1812),[13] United States v. January (1813),[14] United States v. Patterson (1813),[15] Crowell v. McFadon (1814),[16] Prince v. Bartlett (1814),[17] United States v. Tenbroek (1817),[18] The Neptune (1818),[19] Boyd's Lessee v. Graves (1819),[20] The Frances & Eliza (1823),[21] Walton v. United States (1824),[22] Piles v. Bouldin (1826),[23] Rhea v. Rhenner (1828),[24] Parker v. United States (1828),[25] Nicholls v. Hodges (1828),[26] and Le Grand v. Darnall (1829).[27]

Commercial law

Freeland concerned commercial law. In Freeland, a diversity suit concerning a commercial transaction between American and English merchants, Duvall enforced the English choice of law clause of the contract, applying "a rule of the Chancery Court and of merchants," namely that: "When one merchant sends an account current to another residing in a different country, between whom there are mutual dealings, and he keeps it two years without making any objections, it shall be deemed a stated account, and his silence and acquiescence shall bind him, at least so far as to cast the onus probandi on him."[28]


January and Prince v. Bartlett concerned bankruptcy. In January, according to Prof. John Paul Jones, Duvall became the "architect of the federal rule that the ordinary practice of permitting first the debtor and alternatively the creditor to choose to which among competing obligations a payment should be applied did not pertain when different sureties, under distinct obligations, were interested."[29] In a 2007 address to the Federalist Society, Chief Justice John Roberts jokingly referred to this as "the Duvall rule."[30] according to Prof. Jones, Prince v. Bartlett "is still cited regularly for the distinction first articulated in that case between bankruptcy and mere insolvency."[29]

Debts to the United States

Patterson, Walton, and Parker concerned debts to the United States (a subject with which Duvall was familiar due to his experience as Comptroller of the Treasury). Patterson reversed a judgment for the debtor, holding that the debtor "could not be justly entitled to credit until the money was in the hands of some public officer authorized to receive it."[31] Walton affirmed a judgment against a debtor, holding that, while ordinarily "a security under seal extinguishes a simple contract debt," in the case of public debts, "the account and the bond are distinct from each other. The official bond is not given for the balance due; it is a collateral security . . . ."[32] Parker affirmed a judgment for the United States to recoup the payment of double rations to a military officer because the doubling was not authorized by the President or the Secretary of War, as required by the statute.[33]

Federal customs law

Crowell v. McFadon, Tenbroek, The Neptune, and The Frances & Eliza and concerned the enforcement of federal customs law. In Crowell v. McFadon, Duvall reversed a trover judgment from the Massachusetts courts against a federal customs collector enforcing the Embargo Act of 1807.[34] The Neptune upheld the forfeiture of an unregistered vessel.[35] The Frances & Eliza held that the Navigation Act of 1818 did not apply to a British vessel bringing goods from a non-British port to the United States merely because the vessel had stopped for provisions at a British port en route.[36] Tenbroek concerned statutory construction. The decision was, in effect, an advisory opinion. Duvall wrote:

It is the opinion of this court, that there is no error in the judgment of the circuit court. This opinion is given on the request of the Attorney-General; it being probable that the same question may frequently occur. But, as this cause is improperly brought before this court by writ of error, having been first carried from the district to the circuit court by the same process, it is dismissed.[37]
Land law

Boyd's Lessee v. Graves and Piles v. Bouldin concerned land law. Boyd's Lessee v. Graves held that an agreement as to the location of a survey line was not a contract, and thus was not barred by the statute of frauds.[38] Piles v. Bouldin held that land grants were to be interpreted by the judge (not the jury), and reversed the judgement below failing to give effect to the statute of limitations.[39]

Maryland law

Rhea v. Rhenner, Nicholls v. Hodges, and Le Grand v. Darnall concerned Maryland law (which Duvall was familiar with as a former Maryland state judge). Rhea v. Rhenner concerned the ability of a woman to contract under Maryland law. Elizabeth Rhea had been abandoned by her first husband William Erskine for five years and attempted to remarry to Daniel Rhea. She executed a deed in payment of a debt that she had contracted for herself. Duvall held that her second marriage was invalid because she had only been abandoned for five years, rather than the requisite seven years, and that no contract signed by her in the absence of her first husband could be valid.[40] Nicholls v. Hodges held that under Maryland law the claim of an executor against an estate stands on an equal footing with other claims.[41] Le Grand v. Darnall held that a jury was justified in presuming a deed of manumission because a slave owner permitted former slaves and their descendants to own property and contract debts within three miles of his residence.[42]


Duvall authored a one-sentence concurrence in McIver's Lessee v. Walker (1815): "My opinion is that there is no safe rule but to follow the needle."[43] Duvall authored a brief seriatim opinion in Beatty v. Maryland (1812).[44]


For all of Duvall's tenure, John Marshall presided as Chief Justice. In only three cases, does the record show the two men holding different opinions. Duvall dissented without opinion in Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819) and Evans v. Eaton (1822),[45] and with opinion in Queen v. Hepburn (1813).[46] In Dartmouth College, Duvall issued his sole "opinion" in a constitutional case.[5] The notation in the United States Reports reads in full: "Duvall, Justice, dissented."[47] In Queen v. Hepburn, Duvall would have authorized the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia to accept hearsay evidence proving the emancipation of a slave by her owner, but the rest of the Court, per the Chief Justice, decided against it.[46]


Duvall lived for nine years after he retired, and died in

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
John Francis Mercer
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Maryland's 2nd congressional district

Succeeded by
Richard Sprigg, Jr.
Legal offices
Preceded by
Samuel Chase
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
November 18, 1811 – January 12, 1835
Succeeded by
Philip Pendleton Barbour

External links

  • Abraham, Henry J. (1992). Justices and Presidents: A Political History of Appointments to the Supreme Court (3rd ed.). New York:  
  • Cushman, Clare (2001). The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1995 (2nd ed.). (Supreme Court Historical Society, Congressional Quarterly Books).  
  • Flanders, Henry. The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1874 at Google Books.
  • Frank, John P. (1995). Friedman, Leon; Israel, Fred L., eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. Chelsea House Publishers.  
  • Hall, Kermit L., ed. (1992). The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.  
  • Martin, Fenton S.; Goehlert, Robert U. (1990). The U.S. Supreme Court: A Bibliography. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Books.  
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. (1994). The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland Publishing. p. 590.  
  • White, G. Edward. The Marshall Court & Cultural Change, 1815–35. Published in an abridged edition, 1991.

Further reading

  • David P. Currie, The Most Insignificant Justice: A Preliminary Inquiry, 50 U. Chi. L. Rev. 466 (1983).
  • Irving Dilliard, Gabriel Duvall, in 1 The Justices of the United States Supreme Court 1789–1969, at 419 (H. Friedman & F. Israel eds. 1969).
  • Frank H. Easterbrook, The Most Insignificant Justice: Further Evidence, 50 U. Chi. L. Rev. 481 (1983).


  1. ^ a b c Currie, 1983, at 466.
  2. ^ Easterbrook, 1983, at 482, 496.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Christopher L. Tomlins, The United States Supreme Court: The Pursuit of Justice 476–77 (2005).
  4. ^ Journalist and Supreme Court specialist Irving Lee Dilliard (1904–2002).
  5. ^ a b Currie, 1983, at 468.
  6. ^ Kenneth Jost, The Supreme Court A to Z 171 (2007).
  7. ^ 4 West's Encyclopedia of American Law 171 (1998).
  8. ^ a b David G. Savage & Joan Biskupic, Guide to the US Supreme Court 993 (2004).
  9. ^ Easterbrook, 1983, at 491.
  10. ^ Leonard Baker, John Marshall: A Life in Law 539 (1974).
  11. ^ Dillard, 1969, at 427.
  12. ^ a b Currie, 1983, at 471.
  13. ^ Freeland v. Heron, Lenox & Co., 11 U.S. (7 Cranch) 147 (1812).
  14. ^ United States v. January, 11 U.S. (7 Cranch) 572 (1813).
  15. ^ United States v. Patterson, 11 U.S. (7 Cranch) 575 (1813),
  16. ^ Crowell v. McFadon, 12 U.S. (8 Cranch) 94 (1814).
  17. ^ Prince v. Bartlett, 12 U.S. (8 Cranch) 431 (1814).
  18. ^ United States v. Tenbroek, 15 U.S. (2 Wheat.) 248 (1817).
  19. ^ The Neptune, 16 U.S. (3 Wheat.) 601 (1818).
  20. ^ Boyd's Lessee v. Graves, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 513 (1819).
  21. ^ The Frances & Eliza, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 398 (1823).
  22. ^ Walton v. United States, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 651 (1824).
  23. ^ Piles v. Bouldin, 24 U.S. (11 Wheat.) 325 (1826).
  24. ^ Rhea v. Rhenner, 26 U.S. (1 Pet.) 105 (1828).
  25. ^ Parker v. United States, 26 U.S. (1 Pet.) 293 (1828).
  26. ^ Nicholls v. Hodges, 26 U.S. (1 Pet.) 562 (1828).
  27. ^ Le Grand v. Darnall, 27 U.S. (2 Pet.) 664 (1829).
  28. ^ Freeland, 11 U.S. at 151.
  29. ^ a b John Paul Jones, "Gabriel Duvall" (Jan. 20, 2012).
  30. ^ John Roberts, Address to the Federalist Society (Nov. 16, 2007).
  31. ^ Patterson, 11 U.S. at 576.
  32. ^ Walton, 22 U.S. at 656.
  33. ^ Parker, 26 U.S. at 293–98.
  34. ^ Crowell v. McFadon, 12 U.S. at 98.
  35. ^ The Neptune, 16 U.S. at 602–10.
  36. ^ The Frances & Eliza, 21 U.S. at 404–06.
  37. ^ Tenbroek, 15 U.S. at 259.
  38. ^ Boyd's Lessee v. Graves, 17 U.S. at 517–18.
  39. ^ Piles v. Bouldin, 24 U.S. at 330–32.
  40. ^ Rhea v. Rhenner, 26 U.S. at 108–09.
  41. ^ Nicholls v. Hodges , 26 U.S. at 564–66.
  42. ^ Le Grand v. Darnall, 27 U.S. 667–70.
  43. ^ McIver's Lessee v. Walker, 13 U.S. (9 Cranch) 173, 179 (1815) (Duvall, J., concurring).
  44. ^ Beatty v. Maryland, 11 U.S. (7 Cranch) 281, 284 (1812) (Duvall, J.).
  45. ^ Evans v. Eaton, 20 U.S. (7 Wheat.) 356, 452 (1822) (Duvall, J., dissenting).
  46. ^ a b Queen v. Hepburn, 11 U.S. (7 Cranch) 290, 298 (1813) (Duvall, J., dissenting).
  47. ^ Trs. of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 518, 713 (1819) (Duvall, J., dissenting).
  48. ^ Patricia Chambers Walker & Thomas Graham, Directory of Historic House Museums in the United States 142 (2000).
  49. ^ Ernest Sutherland Bates, The Story of the Supreme Court 109 (1936).
  50. ^ Dilliard, 1969, at 428.
  51. ^ a b Currie, 1983, at 467.
  52. ^ Currie, 1983, at 467, 471.
  53. ^ a b c Currie, 1983, at 470.
  54. ^ Currie, 1983, at 472–73.
  55. ^ Currie, 1983, at 473–77.
  56. ^ Currie, 1983, at 479.
  57. ^ Currie, 1983, 479–80.
  58. ^ a b c d e f Currie, 1983, at 480.
  59. ^ Easterbrook, 1983, at 482.
  60. ^ Easterbrook, 1983, at 496.


See also

Then-Prof., now-Judge Frank H. Easterbrook replied to Currie's article. He wrote: "I also became worried that Currie had slighted—even overlooked!—the legitimate claims of others to the honors he bestowed on Gabriel Duval[l]. Could it be that Currie's efforts were simply pseudo-science employed in the pursuit of some predetermined plan to award Duval[l] the coveted prize without serious consideration of candidates so shrouded in obscurity that they escaped proper attention even in a contest of insignificance?"[59] Easterbrook concludes: " Of the finalists, Todd and Duval[l], one disqualified himself by writing some significant opinions. True, Duval[l] tried to atone for this by remaining mute (he was deaf by then as well) after his opinion in LeGrand, but it was too late. His Significant Acts had disqualified him. The winner by default—in what other way can one win this kind of contest?—is Thomas Todd. Long may he reign."[60]

[58].William Cushing and [58],John Hessin Clarke [58],William R. Day [58] Prof.

In 1939, Ernest Sutherland Bates, the author of The Story of the Supreme Court called Duvall "probably the most insignificant of all Supreme Court Judges."[49] The characterization was rejected by Irving Dilliard's biographical entry in The Justices of the United States Supreme Court 1789–1969 (1969).[50] Dillard did not propose an alternative candidate.[1]


[48], is open to the public and is operated as an historic house museum by M-NCPPC.Marietta House Museum Justice Duvall's home, [3]

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