Schooling in Liberal Law

University of North Dakota Law School Building Before there was a law school building, there was a University of North Dakota Law School. In her book on N.D. Governor and U.S. Senator William Langer, The Dakota Maverick, Agnes Geelan gives insight into the early days of the law school, when faculty were paid $2.50 a lecture, law students had to be grammar school graduates, and those who gathered there would shape the history of a state:

By the time he finished high school, Bill Langer had decided he wanted to be a lawyer, and in the fall of 1904 he enrolled in the two-year law course at the University of North Dakota. Because of its impact on Langer and the state of North Dakota, it might be well to consider this school in some detail.

Louis Geiger in his University of the Northern Plains calls attention to the fact that as early as 1909 the University's Law School graduates were practicing in 78 North Dakota towns, and five graduates were in the legislature. In 1916 four of the top leaders of the Nonpartisan League were University Law School graduates. Through the years, many of the state's governors and state legislators and most of the judges have come from the North Dakota University Law School, which began to operate in 1899. Dean Guy Corliss, a prominent Grand Forks attorney, and the first chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court, had never attended a law school or even college. As an instructor in the law school, he took no pay the first year, and the second year he was paid $2.50 for each lecture, the same fee being paid to the other seven Grand Forks lawyers who were also instructors. The only full-time law faculty member was John E. Blair, one year out of Harvard, who was paid $1,500 a year.

The school used rented quarters in Grand Forks until after World War I, when it moved to the University campus. There was practically no library, and the law students depended on libraries of the local lawyers. In 1905 the legislature appropriated $10,000 to buy the law library of John W. Cochrane, who had been a supreme court justice and a trustee of the University before his death.

The early Law School's entrance requirements merely specified that the applicant must have reached his eighteenth birthday and that he had completed grammar school. Geiger notes some special students were not even held to that.

Since John Blair left the school in 1902, Bill Langer took no classes from him. Andrew Bruce, a University of Wisconsin graduate, joined the North Dakota faculty in 1901. It wasn't until 1909 that the Law School had three full-time instructors. In 1902 Samuel Peterson, a graduate of Yale, came to the school. Edward Blackorby, in his story of William Lemke, The Prairie Rebel, wrote, "Lemke was some of the clay molded by Samuel Peterson." In a story of Bill Langer this is significant, considering the fact that Langer and Lemke were so closely associated in the early days of the Nonpartisan League.

A law degree was granted on completion of two years' work, and graduates were admitted to practice in North Dakota without further examination. In 1905, on Dean Bruce's recommendation, state bar examinations were required, and that same year the school established an entrance requirement of at least two years of high school preparation.

When Bill Langer enrolled in 1904, there were 500 students at the University of North Dakota, 91 of them in the School of Law.

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During Langer's first year at the university William Lemke and Lynn Frazier were seniors and L. E. Birdzell was one of the law instructors. Ten years later, when the Nonpartisan League, a farmers' reform movement, swept into power in North Dakota, William Lemke directed the work of the League, Lynn Frazier was elected governor, William Langer was elected attorney general and L. E. Birdzell was named to the state supreme court.

In 1907 James Twamley, a member of the first board of trustees of the university, in speaking to a group of Grand Forks businessmen, said, "There are men on the faculty of the University of North Dakota who are more interested in teaching socialism than in the curriculum. I may not live to see it, but you gentlemen who hear my voice, if you live your allotted time, will see the day when your state will pay for what is being allowed to be carried on at your chief educational institution. They are sowing the wind over there, and the state will reap the whirlwind."

That others in the state were disturbed by the liberal teaching at the University is evident in a quotation from a letter written by President Webster Merrifield to John Gillette, who was hired as a member of the law faculty in 1907. "The charge was very commonly brought against the University at Bismarck last winter that the institution was a hotbed of anarchy. The charge is absolutely without foundation, in my belief," Merrifield wrote.

The liberal climate during Langer's student days may have been due in part to the influence of George Winship, a crusading state senator and editor of the Grand Forks Herald, who hated Alex McKenzie and began publishing editorials on the abuses of railroad, elevator and financial interests as early as 1904.

Elwyn Robinson in his History of North Dakota considers George Winship one of the state's three great reformers, listing him with Dr. Edwin F. Ladd and Judge Charles Amidon. Robinson also considered Winship the chief opponent of the McKenzie gang and quoted an editorial which called a pro-McKenzie editor a "blabbering blatherskite and an unprincipled hoodlum."

Winship served only one term in the state senate because the McKenzie forces gerrymandered legislative districts to prevent re-election of Winship.

However much Langer's political philosophy may have been shaped at the University of North Dakota, he came out of its law school well grounded in law and passed the state bar examination with credit at the age of nineteen. But he had to wait until he was twenty-one before he could be admitted to practice, so he left for New York to continue studies at Columbia University.

Agnes Geelan, The Dakota Maverick (1975), pp. 14-16.