By Carron Nicks • May 01, 2020•Ms. JD, Writers in Residence
Some people might dispute whether Esther Hobart Morris was actually a judge. Technically, she was a Justice of the Peace and a non-lawyer to boot. But she was hearing cases before the first women law students had entered law schools. I’d say she counts.
Judge Morris’s life reads like a John Ford western. As I learned more about her, I pictured Harry Carey, Jr., as her hard driving, hard drinking husband and the inimitable character actress Marjorie Main as the judge herself, loud spoken, sarcastic, and a little rough around the edges - just like you might expect of a woman who dispensed justice from a makeshift desk in the living room of her log cabin home in a Wyoming mining camp. Honestly, I don’t know why someone hasn’t made a movie to celebrate this woman’s achievements.
In 1812, Esther Hobart began her life in Tioga County, New York. She apprenticed as a seamstress and later owned a successful millinery business. She married, had a son, and was widowed. She moved to Illinois where her late husband had property. As she attempted to settle his estate, she ran into significant roadblocks - laws limiting a woman's right to own property. One wonders whether that may have influenced her later exploits on behalf of women's sufferage.
While still in Illinois, Esther married John Morris, a merchant, and raised a family. In 1868, her husband and oldest son moved to Wyoming to join the gold rush. Morris and her other sons followed a year later. They traveled by the newly completed transcontinental railroad and then by stagecoach to reach South Pass City. Her new home was a 24 x 26 foot cabin with a sod roof. By then she had reached the "advanced" age of 55 years.
In 1869, shortly after her arrival, the Wyoming territorial legislature passed the women’s suffrage amendment, the first in the United States. Not long after, one Justice of the Peace quit in protest of the amendment. Morris was appointed to replace another JP, one J.W. Stillman. As her first official act, she had Stillman arrested when he refused to turn over his docket.
Even within her own family, Judge Morris received a mixed bag of support. Her sons were her champions, and she appointed both as officers of her court. Her husband, however, was a different story. He actively opposed her appointment, and at one point had to be removed from her court for making a scene. There is apparently more to that story, as some accounts report that after her tenure as JP she swore out a complaint for assault and battery and eventually divorced him.
Judge Morris served out the remaining eight months of her predecessor’s term. During that time she ruled on 27 cases, including 9 criminal matters. None of her decisions was overturned. She would have continued, but neither the Democrats nor the Republicans nominated her for the post.
Some years later, in a letter to a women’s suffrage convention in Washington D.C. she wrote of her appointment that it “transpired to make [her] position as a justice of the peace a test of a woman’s ability to hold public office.”
Author Lynne Cheney wrote in American Heritage Magazine,
When the lawyers who appeared in her court tried to embarrass her with legal terms and technicalities, she admitted her lack of training but was quick to let them know just whose court they were in. One of the lawyers who practiced before her recalled that “to pettifoggers she showed no mercy.” Mrs. Morris herself gave a more direct account. She handled quarrelling lawyers, she reported, with a firm “Boys, behave yourselves.”
Although she felt she had done a satisfactory job, Judge Morris regretted that she was not better qualified. “Like all pioneers, I labored more in faith and hope.”
In 1960, the state of Wyoming dedicated a statue of Judge Morris in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol in Washington, DC. See the photo above. A replica of the statue can be found outside the Wyoming State Capitol in Cheyenne.
Now, which movie producer should we lobby to immortalize Esther on film?