Could have been, but he declined President Washington’s request for him to replace Chief Justice John Jay. Washington gave Rutledge a recess appointment as Chief Justice, but he was never confirmed after he gave a speech opposing the Jay Treaty. Next, Washington nominated Oliver Ellsworth as Chief, who only lasted four years in office due to his health, resigned in 1800 on the eve of the presidential election. You know what happens next (but probably not the entire story):
Under severe time pressure—and preferring, for political reasons, to choose a Chief Justice from outside the Court rather than elevating one of the Associate Justices—Adams then turned to his Secretary of State, John Marshall. Many years later, Marshall would recall the circumstances:
When I waited on the President with Mr. Jays letter declining the appointment he said thoughtfully “Who shall I nominate now?” I replied that I could not tell. . . . After a moment’s hesitation he said “I believe I must nominate you.” I had never before heard my self named for the office and had not even thought of it. I was pleased as well as surprized, and bowed in silence.
Just think, we could have had a Chief Justice Hamilton, instead of a Chief Justice Marshall. How different our Republic would have been?
This vignette is from Clare Cushman’s awesome new book, Courtwatchers. I highly recommend it for any SCOTUS wonk. Ron Collins has a review here.