Be it on topics of property, contract, commerce, trade, tax, legal history, or other matters, jurisprudence in the United States often invokes economic thinking in providing a rationale for legal outcomes. Consequently, I wondered how often the appeal to economic thinking in the courts included a reference to Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics. This essay traces the citations to Adam Smith in the judicial opinions of the Federal Courts starting with the first two cases to cite Smith in 1796; 214 years ago. The essay provides a brief contextual discussion about Smith and the way in which he has been cited over the years. This is followed by a report on the full set of citations to Adam Smith in the case opinions of the Federal Courts and in the legal briefs filed in those cases.
Between the years 1796 and 2009, Adam Smith is directly referenced in 162 cases, and in legal briefs filed in 213 cases. Over time Smith is cited for different purposes. He is cited in case opinions dealing with a range of topics including: tax, trade, commerce, labor, antitrust, and private property. The way in which Smith is referenced over time also changes. In general, references to Smith shift over time as he goes from being an authoritative reference on matters of taxation to being a mere iconic punctuation point in the arguments of those seeking to promote free markets and laissez-faire.
The article offers quotations from case opinions and establishes a record of Adam Smith’s appearances in the Courts of the United States. Interestingly, 70% of the citations to Smith occur since 1970. Hopefully, the article will be a fun piece to read no matter what one’s specialized research or teaching area may be.