II. Meandering into the Twentieth Century
. . .
F. The NPL’s Justice Robinson
Justice Robinson was a vivid figure who enjoyed a distinctive career on the Court. He "was a veteran of the Civil War and was seventy-five years of age when he took office. He had a full beard and looked like an Old Testament prophet."(177) "He was a large man, with flowing beard and an erect carriage."(178)
"In [Justice Robinson's] first year on the court, when he wrote the amazing total of forty-eight opinions of the court, thirty-one dissents with opinions, and twenty-nine concurrences with opinions (a total of one hundred and eight written opinions), only eight contained citations to case law."(179) He had a "colorful style," "wrote with abandon, striking out in all directions, and wrote entertainingly."(180) "[H]e was well read and had an analytical mind and was well grounded in law. . . ."(181)
He was also well versed in the classics and the Bible, and often quoted both in his opinions. He decried the writing of long opinions and citation of a long list of authorities. He used to take pride in the fact that his opinions rarely exceeded in length over two legal size pages of typewriter paper.(182)
Yet, his eccentricities got him in trouble with his colleagues.
Justice Robinson, . . . much to the dismay of his judicial brethern inaugurated the novel practice of publishing a weekly "Saturday Night Letter," in which he freely discussed the doings of the court in much the style of a "Personals" column of a country weekly. His comments upon the merits and demerits of his colleagues were often annoying, and his habit of publicly prejudging cases before the court resulted in numerous clashes, particularly with [Justice] Bruce. [Justice] Robinson's rather queer and certainly unjudicial letters were not infrequently a source of some embarrassment to the League as well, but the old gentleman was not to be dissuaded from proving to the world that the state now had a truly democratic court in which pomp and ceremony had presumably given way to the substance of justice and a sort of neighborly informality.(183)
When Justice Robinson felt an oral argument had gone too long, according to Supreme Court lore, he would put his hat on and turn his chair around so the speaker could only see the back of it with his hat above.(184) Other justices have been too courteous to do that, even if they sometimes thought of it.
At its 1919 annual meeting, the State Bar Association acted on resolutions, offered by a "committee appointed to take into consideration the question of a pronouncement . . . upon public questions involving the status of the legal profession in our state and other kindred questions."(185) While the resolutions did not name Justice Robinson, they clearly censured his eccentric judicial conduct:
We desire to place upon record the condemnation of this association, of the unethical acts of one of the judges of the supreme court, in publishing his opinions in the newspapers, long before the case is decided and before the official opinion of the court is filed in regular form.(186)
The proposed resolutions drew a lengthy speech from Justice Bronson, the only justice present.(187) Although "somewhat impressed with the temperate manner in which the resolutions have been drawn," he protested:
[I]t does hurt you and it hurts the bench when you hear band[i]ed about the thought, in the words loosely said, that the bench of this state are not upholding the ethics of the profession or pursuing the high ideals well known in American and English jurisprudence.(188)
Justice Bronson declined to vote on the resolutions, but they were "duly adopted" after a "somewhat extended discussion."(189)
Justice Robinson (1917-1922) was defeated for re-election in 1922.(190) Justice Grace (1917-1922) retired then.(191) Justice Birdzell (1917-1933) was reelected in 1922 and 1928, but resigned November 1, 1933 to become general counsel for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.(192) Notwithstanding some political overtones, these three Justices certainly left a colorful legacy for the Court.
177. Hon. Robert Vogel, Justice Robinson and the Supreme Court of North Dakota, 58 N.D. L. Rev. 83, 84 (1982). The 1919 Legislative Manual, containing "Historical, Statistical, and Political Information" and "Published Under the Direction of Thomas Hall, Secretary of State," said of Justice Robinson, at page 558: "Elected as judicial reformer by highest vote ever given in the state, and gives the press every Saturday evening an account of the court proceedings during the week. He advocates simplifications of court proceedings and that every appeal should be decided within thirty days after it is filed."
178. Newton, supra note 5, at 8.
179. Vogel, supra note 177, at 85.
180. Vogel, supra note 177, at 91, 96.
181. Newton, supra note 5, at 8.
182. Newton, supra note 5, at 8.
183. Morlan, supra note 161, at 99.
184. Luella Dunn attributes this anecdote to her predecessor as Clerk, John Henry Newton. Former-Justice Vogel described Justice Robinson's courtroom behavior a little differently: "He is reputed to have worn his hat regularly in the courtroom and to have walked out of the courtroom in the middle of arguments if he thought he had heard enough from the lawyer arguing the case." Vogel, supra note 177, at 85 (citing Burdick, supra note 139, at 8).
185. Report to the Members of the Bar Association (Aug. 21, 1919), in Proceedings of the Bar Association of North Dakota 47.
186. See id. at 48-49.
187. According to the 1919 Legislative Manual, Justice Bronson had been appointed to the Court in December 1918 "to fill the vacancy occasioned by the resignation of Chief Justice Bruce," but also had been, "[i]n November 1918, with the endorsement of the Nonpartisan League, and of Organized Labor, . . . elected Judge of the Supreme Court." See North Dakota Blue Book 558 (1919) (containing 1919 Legislative Manual). Justice Andrew A. Bruce (1911-1918), after serving as dean of UND Law School from 1902 to 1911, was appointed to the Court by Governor John Burke. See Sketch, supra note 2, at 36. He resigned from the Court on December 1, 1918, to return to teaching law. See Sketch, supra note 2, at 36. In 1922, he went to Northwestern University law School, where he taught until his death on December 6, 1934. See Sketch, supra note 2, at 36.
188. See Report to Members of the Bar Association, supra note 185, at 49, 51.
189. See Report to Members of the Bar Association, supra note 185, at 52.
190. See Sketch, supra note 2, at 40. Justice Robinson was defeated by Justice Sveinbjorn Johnson (1923-1926). See Sketch, supra note 2, at 43. Justice Johnson left the Court in 1926 to become legal counsel and professor of law at the University of Illinois, ran unsuccessfully for Illinois Attorney General in 1944, and then practiced law in Chicago. See Sketch, supra note 2, at 43.
191. See Sketch, supra note 2, at 39. Justice William Nuessle, who had practiced at Goodrich, been state's attorney of McLean County, and served as a district judge for 10 years, was elected to succeed Justice Grace. See Sketch, supra note 2, at 42.
192. See Sketch, supra note 2, at 38. The 1919 Legislative Manual, says Justice Birdzell, "[u]pon America's entrance into the World War [I] and the inauguration of the Selective Service System, . . . was appointed chairman of the District Board for North Dakota, in which capacity he served until the final disposition of the draft organization, some three months after the signing of the armistice." North Dakota Blue Book 557 (1919) (containing 1919 Legislative Manual).