Territorial Supreme Court

Dec 3, 2018

When Dakota Territory was created, that also meant organizing its Supreme Court, which was seated at Yankton in southern Dakota for many years. President Lincoln originally appointed three justices – Philemon Bliss, Joseph L. Williams and George P. Williston. Bliss was Dakota’s first chief justice. The men were also trial judges who presided over districts of the territory, so they hardly idled away their days.

It wasn’t until this date in 1867 that Dakota’s Territorial Supreme Court met as a bench to hear appeals – more than six years after the territory formed. That’s understandable – Dakota Territory only had about 4,800 residents when it formed, and the Dakota Boom was still a few years off. None of the original three justices Lincoln appointed were still on the bench to hear those first appeals. Now serving was Ara Bartlett, Jefferson Kidder and John W. Boyle. Kidder became the namesake for Kidder County, North Dakota.

The first written opinion issued by Dakota’s Territorial Supreme Court affirmed there were no legal errors involved in the seizure of a steamboat on the Missouri River accused of “introducing into the Indian country spirituous and intoxicating liquors.”

Another opinion from that first term heard a similar case. It involved the sale of a pint of whiskey to a Native American chief, whose testimony was challenged by the accused on grounds of race and other factors. The high court upheld the man’s conviction and also the chief’s testimony. Kidder wrote that race doesn’t exclude a witness from the courts, saying: “Every person should have equal rights under the law.”

After the territorial capital moved from Yankton to Bismarck in 1883, the court remained in Yankton, by virtue of territorial statute. In 1885, territorial legislators resolved the matter by passing a law requiring annual court sessions in Bismarck, Deadwood and Yankton.

By 1888, the number of justices on the court rose to eight. About twenty different justices took a turn on the court before statehood in 1889. Today, 5 justices serve on the state supreme court, serving 10-year terms.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

46 N.W. 503, 1 Dakota 1
Bennett, G.A. (1879). Reports of cases argued and determined in the supreme court of the territory of Dakota, from its organization to and including the December term, 1877. Bowen & Kingsbury, Law Publishers: Yankton, Dakota