Dakota Datebook

Justice Guy Corliss

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Guy Carlton Haines Corliss, son of Cyrus and Clarinda Corliss – sounds like he was from a house of royalty. But, he wasn’t. Guy Corliss was born on July 4, 1858, in Poughkeepsie, NY. He studied at home, entered high school at age 11 and graduated when he was 15. He couldn’t afford college, so while working in a local grocery store, he studied a local attorney’s law books. When he was 21, he took the bar exam in Brooklyn, passed and became a lawyer.

Corliss moved to Grand Forks in 1883, and six years later, when North Dakota was admitted to the Union, 31 year-old Corliss was elected to the state’s first supreme court. In fact, he became the state’s first chief justice.

In 1888, Corliss resigned from the bench and went back into private practice in Grand Forks, where he also helped Webster Merrifield organize UND’s law school. Typical of his groundbreaking nature, Corliss then became the law school’s first dean while also continuing his private practice. In fact, he was instrumental in quashing a notorious scheme by the Louisiana Lottery to move its operations into North Dakota that same year.

A lesser known story about Corliss involves an arrest – his own. In May 1907, Burleigh County assembled a grand jury – its 23 jurors were to inquire into several crimes and decide if there was enough evidence to have someone indicted. One of the investigations centered on E.G. Patterson, who allegedly broke prohibition laws. The State’s Attorney, who was also named Patterson, met with the county commissioners the night before the grand jury assembly and asked them to hire Judge Corliss to assist him as prosecutor. They agreed and promised to provide Corliss a token $5 a day for his services.

The following day, Attorney Patterson informed the court Corliss would be present in the courtroom to question witnesses. E.G. Patterson’s defense attorney, Mr. Townsend, questioned whether this was legal, because Corliss wasn’t from Burleigh County. The court then suggested that maybe Temperance Commissioner Murray could appoint Corliss as his deputy, because the Temperance Commissioner had authority to question witnesses before the jury.

It was shaky territory, so the next morning, Judge Corliss entered the courtroom with a specific strategy. He walked in on the grand jury as the newly appointed Deputy Temperance Commissioner and argued for the right to perform the duties for which he was hired. Both Townsend and Corliss gave what the Bismarck Tribune called “brilliant arguments,” but Judge Winchester decided Townsend’s argument was more compelling – that Corliss was privately hired and the appointment was not allowable, because he was merely circumventing the rules of a grand jury hearing. In the end, Judge Winchester charged Corliss with contempt of court and sentenced him to five days in jail.

Corliss immediately moved into the next phase of his plan by filing a writ of habeas corpus, and by the next day, he was arguing his case before the ND Supreme Court. The hearing went on for many hours, during which all involved picked apart the entire situation. In a two-to-one decision, the justices decided the appointment of a Temperance Commissioner was never legal to begin with, because such a position should have been an elected position, not an appointed one. Without the voice of the people, they said, the position was unconstitutional. So, not only was Corliss not allowed to become Temperance Commissioner Murray’s deputy, Murray, himself, was suddenly unemployed.

Most people agreed Corliss did the right thing in willingly testing the legality of his position. He spent his five days in jail without complaint.

After spending 26 productive years in North Dakota, Judge Corliss moved to Portland, OR, for health reasons. He died there, after a long illness, on this date in 1937.

Sources:
The Bismarck Tribune. May 21, 22, 23, 24, 30, 1907. Oct 26, 1907. Nov 26, 1937.
Guy C. H. Corliss, Justice of the Supreme Court, 1889-1898. North Dakota Supreme Court Justices. <http://www.ndcourts.com/court/bios/corliss.htm>

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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