The U.S. Supreme Court, which may soon gain a new associate justice, is no stranger to controversy — just look at Bristol and its famed State Street.
U.S. senators are soon expected to vote on the addition of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. He would replace retiring Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy.
If you’ve not been hiding under a rock, you likely have heard about the sexual assault accusations lodged against Kavanaugh. But we’re going to leave this controversy for the Senate to decide.
Contested judicial nominees and polarizing decisions have long gone hand-in-hand with the Supreme Court. And when polarizing decisions haven’t been made, they’ve taken up controversial questions.
The bedrock of Bristol — the state line that passes through the Twin City’s downtown — was once one of those controversial questions.
On June 1, 1903, the Supreme Court approved the state line between Tennessee and Virginia to pass through the center of Bristol, according to the court’s decision, as well as articles published over the years in the Bristol Herald Courier.
Back in the early 1800s, the governments of Tennessee and Virginia agreed to assign three commissioners each to a project to create a state line. The commissioners decided that the line would begin on the summit of White Top Mountain, where the northeastern corner of Tennessee terminates, to the top of Cumberland Mountain, where the southwestern corner of Virginia terminates.
The line was accepted in 1803 by both states as a satisfactory settlement of a controversy that had — under their governments, and that of the colonies preceding them — lasted for nearly a century.
Later, the Supreme Court decision noted that “not a whisper of fraud or misconduct is made by either side against the commissioners for the conclusions they reached and the line they established.”
By the 1850s, when Bristol founder Joseph Anderson released his plat in the immediate area and a town was developed, it became questionable again. Where would the state line cross around Bristol?
By 1856, the Supreme Court noted, the line became indistinct, uncertain and unknown, due to trees affected by weather and development. The commissioners had chosen trees to act as line markers across the region.
The controversy brewed through the late 1880s, when Rufus Ayers, Virginia’s attorney general, filed suit in the Supreme Court.
Typically, the Supreme Court only hears appeals from trial courts and intermediate appellate courts. Under the Constitution, however, it is appointed to hear disputes between two states.
Virginia sought that previous agreements be declared null and void. Ayers asserted that the Supreme Court should go back to the King Charles II charter, which declared the line at 36 degrees and 30 minutes north latitude.
Retired circuit court judge Charles Flannagan, a local historian, said those coordinates are just south of Bristol Motor Speedway. That would place the entire city of Bristol in Virginia.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court declared the 1803 agreement the legal line.
The two states agreed by compact that the state line should be the center of Main Street, present-day State Street, in Bristol. It was ratified in 1901. The Supreme Court then entered an order in 1903, and the case was dismissed.
Tim Buchanan of the Bristol Historical Association told the Bristol Herald Courier that in the late 1930s, brass plates were placed in the center of State Street, between the yellow double lines to signify the border. He noted that brass plates are visible in photographs taken during World War II parades.