Supreme Court Justice Joseph Rucker Lamar served from December 1910 until January 1916. He was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson and served until illness prevented his service on the bench.
Joseph Rucker Lamar was born at their family plantation in Elbert County, Georgia in the small town of Ruckersville. He was the eldest son of Mary Rucker and James Sanford Lamar. Joseph’s father, James, started out studying the law then chose to become a pastor.
Joseph was born on October 14, 1857. This gave him an unusual historical tie. His life was heavily impacted by the Civil War. His family lost their plantation during Sherman’s March to the Sea. Joseph faced several difficult losses early on in his life. His mother died in 1864 and he, his siblings, and father became refugees of Sherman’s March.
In 1865, James Lamar returned to Augusta and his preaching post with his three children. Joseph had two siblings, Philip and Little Mary. Sadly, neither of Joseph’s siblings lived to see their 25th birthday.
James Lamar assumed the role as Parson of the First Christian Church of Augusta. The position came with housing. Joseph spent most of his childhood in the house that was provided. He lived there from age 3 to 18. They were then forced to escape Sherman. In 1865, Joseph’s father remarried. Sallie Mae Ford became Joseph’s stepmother.
Joseph’s childhood home was in close proximity to the Presbyterian parsonage. Pastor Joseph Wilson of the Presbyterian parsonage, had a son named Woodrow Wilson who became close friends with Joseph Lamar.
Poor health caused quite a lot of disruption in Joseph’s education. While he and his brother had their pick of excellent schooling options, Joseph was forced to change schools during his high school and college years twice due to health challenges.
He started high school at Richmond Academy and was forced to withdraw while he convalesced. He graduated from Penn Lucy High School. Similarly, he started college at the University of Georgia, but was again forced to stop his studies due to illness. Joseph was able to obtain his Bachelor of Arts degree at Bethany College in West Virginia.
After his college graduation, he attended Washington and Lee Law School from 1877 to 1878. Despite his health issues, Joseph was equipped with a brilliant legal mind. He completed two years of law school coursework in one year.
Legal Service: Private Practice
Joseph Rucker Lamar was admitted to the Georgia state bar in 1878. Joseph worked in private practice in Augusta, Georgia from 1880 to 1903 and from 1905 to 1911. Joseph also taught Latin at Bethany College for two years.
Legal and Legislative Service: State of Georgia
Joseph became an Associate Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court in 1903 and served until 1905. Justice Lamar was also a member of the Georgia House of Representatives from 1886 to 1889. Following this, he was a high-ranking official in the Commission to Recodify the Laws of Georgia from 1893 to 1895, which was published in 1896. These laws offer an extensive set of rules to be followed by anyone residing in or visiting the state of Georgia. Some of these rules included building codes, the placement of bridges, divorce law, and miscegenation. The research for the work of the Commission to Recodify the Laws of Georgia required Lamar to return to Britain to study the laws of the colony of Georgia prior to the American Revolution. From this research, he was able to fully catalog the recodification.
Legal Service: Supreme Court
Lamar was nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States by William H. Taft on December 12, 1910. His confirmation hearing resulted in a unanimous vote in his favor. Justice Lamar was only the 6th justice appointed by a president of another political party. Justice Lamar served until he suffered a debilitating stroke. He was unable to return to the bench in the fall of 1915 and died on January 2, 1916.
In 1914, Justice Lamar was an integral part of a commission that negotiated a peace settlement with Mexico after a territorial dispute. His involvement in these negotiations was on behalf of his childhood friend, Woodrow Wilson.
Justice Lamar was known as a man of decorum and gentility. In fact, one of his most popular opinions was regarding the treatment of anyone who disturbs the peace of the court or obstructs the work of the justice system. While serving on the Supreme Court, he tended to vote in the majority and favored cohesive executive power.
Joseph Rucker Lamar married Clarinda Huntington Pendleton, daughter of the president of Bethany College where Lamar had returned to teach Latin. The couple had three children. Their daughter Mary was born in 1885 and did not survive infancy. Their two sons, Philip Rucker Lamar and William Pendleton Lamar both lived well into the 20th century, as did his widow Clarinda.
Lamar was prone to working past his own strength and triggering ill health. His second term on the Georgia State Supreme Court was cut short due to illness and exhaustion. He and his wife invested time renovating a home in Augusta during 1905. This would enable Lamar to return to private practice and minimize the amount of travel he had to endure.
The final illness he encountered was a severe cardiac stroke that occurred less than six months before his death. Once debilitated, he was not able to return to Augusta and died in Washington D.C.
Joseph Rucker Lamar was a man who believed deeply in the community. His early years, the tumult of the Civil War and his status as a refugee, led him to a life of service and giving back. In addition to his service to both the Georgia State Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of the United States, Lamar served on boards of medical colleges, libraries, an orphan asylum and the YMCA.