|Chief Judge of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia|
February 24, 1806 - September 1, 1855
|Judge of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia|
March 3, 1801 - February 24, 1806
|Seat established by 2 Stat. 103|
|Allen Bowie Duckett|
|2nd Reporter of Decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States|
|Alexander J. Dallas|
|Born||July 17, 1769|
|Died||September 1, 1855 (aged 86)|
|Resting place||Congressional Cemetery|
|Spouse(s)||Nancy Greenleaf (m. 1795)|
|Children||4 (including Christopher Pearse Cranch and |
|Relatives||William Greenleaf Eliot (son in law)|
Henry Ware Eliot (grandson)
T. S. Eliot (great-grandson)
William Cranch (July 17, 1769 - September 1, 1855) was a United States Circuit Judge and Chief United States Circuit Judge of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia; the 2nd Reporter of Decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States; a Professor of law for Columbian College; and a city land commissioner for Washington, D.C.
Cranch was born on July 17, 1769, in Weymouth, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard University in 1787 and read law with Thomas Dawes, a relative by marriage. He entered private practice in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1790. He continued private practice in Haverhill, Massachusetts from 1790 to 1791. He was Justice of the Peace for Essex County, Massachusetts. He resumed private practice in the area ceded by Maryland that would eventually become Washington, D.C. from 1791 to 1800. He was a city land commissioner for Washington, D.C. (which was officially established by the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 on February 27, 1801) from 1800 to 1801.
Cranch was nominated by President John Adams, his uncle, on February 28, 1801, to the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, to a new seat authorized by the second Judiciary Act of 1801. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on March 3, 1801, and received his commission the same day. His service terminated on February 24, 1806, due to his elevation to serve as Chief Judge of the same court.
Cranch was nominated by President Thomas Jefferson on February 21, 1806, to the Chief Judge seat on the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia vacated by Chief Judge William Kilty. He was confirmed by the Senate on February 24, 1806, and received his commission the same day. His service terminated on September 1, 1855, due to his death in Washington, D.C. He was interred in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Cranch was a member of the Federalist Party, which died out in the mid-1820s. He was the last holder of a United States government office who had been a Federalist.
Cranch is known for several decisions that set a precedent for jury nullification (allowing a jury to nullify an "unjust" law and refuse to convict), including:
Cranch also handed down important precedent in a variety of topics, for example in a criminal law case regarding the mens rea of intoxication, Cranch wrote:
It often happens that the prisoner seeks to palliate his crime by the pleas of intoxication; as if the voluntary abandonment of reason ... were not, of itself, an offense sufficient to make him responsible for all of its consequences.
Concurrent with his service on the federal bench, Cranch served as the 2nd Reporter of Decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1802 to 1815. He also edited his own volume of reports on civil and criminal cases from the District of Columbia. In 1805, Cranch became a member of the first Board of Trustees for Public Schools and served on that board for 7 years. On February 3, 1826, the Columbian College (now George Washington University) board of trustees elected Cranch and William Thomas Carroll, Esq., as the first law professors. On June 13 of the same year, with President John Quincy Adams in attendance, Professor Cranch delivered the first law lecture in the court room of the City Hall.
Cranch was the son of Richard Cranch, a cabinetmaker, and Mary (Smith), the sister of Abigail Adams. Cranch married Nancy Greenleaf. They had four sons; of these, three: Christopher Pearse Cranch, Edward P. Cranch, and John Cranch, all became painters. Their daughter Abigail Adams Cranch married William Greenleaf Eliot. They were the parents of Henry Ware Eliot and the grandparents of poet T. S. Eliot.