There are many stories about the link between baseball and the Supreme Court, but the safeguarding of Justice Stephen Field’s 1885 Term Docket Book has not been one of them, until now. Apparently a baseball memorabilia collector preserved the book because someone pasted into it baseball box scores from the 1888 season of the Washington Senators—not because of its connection to the highest court in the land. It eventually fell into the hands of a dealer near Richmond, VA who realized its significance and contacted the Supreme Court Historical Society.
Matthew Hofstedt, Associate Curator of the Supreme Court, made the trip down to Richmond to examine the book. He found the overall condition to be very good, including the intact red leather covers embossed with gold letters that say “Docket/Supreme Court, U.S./October Term, 1885/Mr. Justice Field.” (Field served on the Court from 1863 to 1897, having made his early career as a lawyer and judge in California.) Hofstedt recognized it immediately as a “Bench” Docket Book, which was given to each Justice at the beginning of the Term with the names of all the holdover cases on the docket printed inside. As new cases were added during the Term, a clerk would hand write their names and numbers on the remaining blank pages. The Justices also had another type of Docket Book, a “Locked” one, which was used in private Conference to write down tentative votes and other observations a Justice wanted to preserve for himself about the deliberation of cases. The information in those books about pending cases needed to remain secret so they had sturdy locks, allowing the Justices to freely transport them from home to the Court and open them with a key. Leather docket books were phased out after the 1945 Term in favor of more economical and adaptable three-ring binders with printed pages.
Although it does not appear to contain writing in Field’s hand, his “Bench” Docket Book is an important find. It is the first, and only, docket book owned by Justice Field known to exist. “It puts you in a time and a place. It’s a perfect artifact,” says Hofstedt. The book lists cases on the docket but also the attorneys who argued them, including Belva Lockwood who became the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court in 1880. Future Justices Melville W. Fuller and George Shiras, Jr. are also listed as advocates. During the 1885 Term the Court docketed 1,348 cases and disposed of 444. Field’s biographer, Paul Kens, author of Justice Stephen Field: Shaping Liberty from the Gold Rush to the Gilded Age (1997), says Field wrote many opinions that Term and that the book’s discovery is “really exciting.”
How the book survived is still a bit of mystery, including how it ended up near Richmond. It is presumed that Field or his staff destroyed his Supreme Court papers and docket books after his retirement in 1897, because no significant collection of his papers exists today. The 1885 Docket Book must therefore have left his possession earlier. The rest of Field’s personal law library was donated by his widow, Sue Field, to the Stanford University Law Library around 1900, but none of his other docket books are located there today.
The SCHS acquired the Field Docket Book through its Acquisitions Fund, chaired by Dorothy Goldman, and it was transferred to the Curator’s Office at the Supreme Court for preservation. The Curator’s Office has other docket books in its collection, which are made available to scholars upon request. If you know of a Justice’s Docket Book, the Acquisitions Committee would like to hear from you. Please contact Matthew Hofstedt at email@example.com.