Cal. Litig. 2019, Volume 32, Number 2

Stephen J. Field: Is That a Pistol in Your Robe or Do You Just Want to Flog Me?

By James Attridge

James Attridge is a transportation lawyer and mediator who splits time between San Francisco and Denver.

If you are reading this, chances are very good that for at least 24 hours you loathed Justice Stephen J. Field. He’s the guy who had you pondering whether to stop that first law school tuition check. Mr. Justice Field was the no good, low-down dirty dog who wrote Pennoyer v. Neff: 17 pages of dreary Victorian prose that amount to this: "If you want to sue somebody and make it stick, it’s a good idea to let them know about it first." Two days later, you learned that cases about mail-order shoes and far-flung Volkswagen dealers rendered Pennoyer old news, but at least you learned a valuable legal lesson: keeping the cast of characters straight is half the battle. Anybody who knew him no doubt chuckles learning the legacy of the first Californian on the U.S. Supreme Court is complex, perplexing, still influential, still required reading, and still annoying. Field spent an entire bilious lifetime annoying his fellow man, albeit in creative ways.

Field came from a distinguished New England family and set up shop in New York with his brother David Dudley Field, who drafted New York’s Field Code of Civil Procedure. He migrated to Marysville as a forty-niner and was elected town alcalde three days after his arrival. Experience was a key issue. His opponent had arrived only the day before. The town didn’t have a jail yet, which made floggings his sentence of choice. In 1850, he was elected to the California Assembly and at the state Democratic convention the next year he flashed his judicial temperament by attempting to defenestrate another delegate. By 1857, he was a wealthy man, having mastered the intricacies of California land titles as well as mineral and water claims, a jumble of conflicting rules dating back to the Siete Partidas of King Alfonso El Sabio.

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