The Nevada Territorial Supreme Court: A Transitional Influence From Frontier Lawlessness to Statehood
AuthorHardy, David Allen
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Nevada statehood was a bi-lateral event that required approval from both the federal government and the territorial residents. It has been extensively studied from a federal perspective, but no scholar has fully considered how the territorial judiciary influenced the residents’ approval of statehood. The judiciary’s role is particularly relevant when explaining why territorial residents rejected statehood by a four-to-one margin only to authorize statehood a mere eight months later by an eight-to-one margin.This paper will demonstrate the Nevada Territorial Supreme Court (NTSC) is an unrecognized but powerful influence in the statehood vote of September 1864. It begins with an examination of judicial systems in the Nevada area under the Utah Territory. It next examines the challenges of a remote, spiritual authority when profound mineral wealth was discovered during the spring of 1859, and suggests the absence of legal order and judicial normalcy compelled the creation of the Nevada Territory. The NTSC exploded into existence in 1861 but then imploded under the weight of its own work during the summer of 1864. Great fortunes were in dispute and the three territorial judges were unable to manage the voluminous litigation. (In 1864, more than 400 lawsuits were on file in Storey County but only three were tried to a jury—and only one trial resulted in a jury verdict). Judicial processes became corrupted and productive mining and related capital infusions came to a halt. After a protracted battle between the newspapers, and a growing chorus of public discontent, the embattled judges resigned from office a mere 16 days before residents voted on statehood. Thus, voters knew the alternatives well: a rejection of statehood would maintain an impotent judiciary and perpetuate the mining recession, whereas the approval of statehood would result in popularly elected judges who were accountable to the citizens they served. This paper examines the details of the first and second constitutional conventions through a judicial lens, the primitive judicial system in place during territorial years, and the role of the press in fomenting public discontent with the courts. This paper also examines the decisional work of the NTSC, which has never been published or otherwise folded into the historical record of Nevada. While some court records exist at the Nevada State Archives, the court’s official opinions have been lost. Based upon extensive research into the newspapers of the time, this paper includes a significant portion of the NTSC’s decisional history. Finally, this paper introduces the judicial personalities and suggests, contrary to other scholarship, that systemic corruption is more easily alleged than proven.