With three alumni currently on the U.S. Supreme Court and one of them — Woodrow Wilson Award winner Sonia Sotomayor ’76 — coming to campus for Alumni Day this Saturday, it seems like a perfect time to reflect on Princeton’s high-court history.
The University can claim a dozen justices, beginning with five 18th-century graduates: William Paterson 1763, Oliver Ellsworth 1766 (Princeton’s lone chief justice), H. Brockholst Livingston 1774, Smith Thompson 1788, and William Johnson Jr. 1790. Virginian Peter V. Daniel 1805, who briefly attended the University but did not graduate, spent 18 years on the court prior to the Civil War, many of them alongside James Moore Wayne 1808, Princeton’s longest-serving justice (1835-1867).
Following Wayne’s death, there were no alumni on the court until 1912, when Mahlon Pitney 1879, a classmate of Woodrow Wilson, was nominated by Wilson’s rival and predecessor, President William H. Taft.
Pictured above is John Marshall Harlan II ’20, on PAW’s cover in November 1954, shortly after he was nominated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The grandson of another Supreme Court justice, Harlan was often called the “great dissenter” of the Warren Court. He served for 16 years until his death in 1971. In his PAW memorial, classmates recalled their former class president’s “forthright character, his innate friendliness, and his superior intellect.”
The recent rise of Princeton justices began with Samuel Alito ’72’s nomination in 2005, during President George W. Bush’s second term. Sotomayor was nominated by President Barack Obama in 2009, and Elena Kagan ’81 left her post as solicitor general to join the court in 2010, giving Princeton three alumni justices for the first time since the 1840s.