Justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court from 1865-1880

Cover image of Professor Evelyn Wilson's book, THE JUSTICES OF THE SUPREME COURT OF LOUISIANA 1865-1880On February 22, 2016, the Law Library of Louisiana and the Supreme Court of Louisiana Historical Society (SCLAHS) offered a free CLE program presented by Professor Evelyn L. Wilson based on her book, The Justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court from 1865-1880, published by Vanderplas Publishing, at the Louisiana Supreme Court. A sizeable audience gathered in the main courtroom at 400 Royal Street to hear Professor Evelyn Wilson speak about the eighteen justices who served on the Louisiana Supreme Court from 1865 to 1880. These years were characterized by social, economic, and political vacillations in civil society during and after the American Civil War.  Professor Wilson’s talk was preceded by the remarks of E. Phelps Gay, a partner at Christovich and Kearney, LLP, and a frequent speaker and contributor at the Court. In detail and with dispatch, Mr. Gay provided historical benchmarks and set the stage for Professor Wilson’s program. Attendees were reminded that in Louisiana, Reconstruction was not defined solely as the period following Appomattox when first President Andrew Johnson and then the United States Congress attempted to manage the civil affairs of the state. In fact, Reconstruction began in 1862 when New Orleans capitulated and was put under control of the Union Army. Thereafter, President Abraham Lincoln actively worked to bring the state back into the Union, even as the war raged on elsewhere.  With the historical context in place, Professor Wilson systematically walked the audience through her research.  For each justice, she provided biographical background – no easy task considering the paucity of records for many of her subjects.  She also delineated a selection of decisions rendered by the Court.  Matters before the Court reflected the turmoil in the aftermath of Secession and the Civil War.  These included property rights, pecuniary matters related to currency, credit and debt; and significantly, the civil rights and protections to be afforded formerly enslaved people. The conflict inherent in these issues and grievances was not limited to the arguments of the litigants.  Professor Wilson repeatedly demonstrated how the bench – largely Republican and sympathetic to the Union – faced a bar that was not only sympathetic to the Confederacy but in many instances, comprised of men who were Confederate military veterans.  Further, the Court was roiled from the outside by both national and local politics and civil discord.  Locally, there was increased and harrowing violence occasioned by the rise of groups such as the notorious White League.  As Professor Wilson demonstrated, the Reconstruction justices eventually succumbed to the machinations and pressures from outside their Court.  In a political compromise which pivoted on the presidential election of Rutherford B. Hayes and the resulting return of political control of Louisiana to local Democrats, the Republican justices were forcibly and rather ignominiously replaced by justices who were appointed by Louisiana’s new Democratic governor, Francis T. Nicholls.  Professor Wilson’s able and original scholarship and her informative presentation were enhanced through her use of selected images from the portrait collection curated by the Law Library and housed in the Louisiana Supreme Court building.

SCLAHS Board Member E. Phelps Gay and Professor Evelyn L. Wilson in Louisiana Supreme Court courtroom after her CLESCLAHS Board Member E. Phelps Gay; Professor Evelyn L. Wilson