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The Impeachment of Judge Cowan


John Cowan was born in Scotland. When he was four years old, the family moved to Canada. In 1877, Cowan graduated from Ottawa Normal School and went on to study medicine before leaving Canada for the United States. For a time he was a clerk in Port Huron, Michigan for the Chicago and Grand Trunk Railroad. He eventually wandered to Devils Lake where he began a law career, entering the law office of McGee and Morgan. He was admitted to practice before the Territorial District Court in 1885. That same year he opened his own law office. He later formed a partnership with P.J. McClory, and together they opened the law firm of Cowan and McClory.

Cowan was a highly-respected lawyer. He was elected State’s Attorney of Ramsey County in 1890. In 1894 he was elected Attorney General of North Dakota and was reelected three times. His place in North Dakota politics seemed assured. Then in 1911, he ran into serious difficulty. On this date in 1911, the Evening Times of Grand Forks reported that articles of impeachment against Cowan would be filed with the North Dakota House of Representatives, and upon approval would be sent to the Senate. According to the newspaper, “Rapid progress is being made in arranging for the impeachment trial of Judge Cowan.” The charges included drunken behavior, disorderly conduct, and assault. Among other things, he was accused of forcibly kissing a woman at the courthouse, and presiding in court while intoxicated.

Upon examining the articles of impeachment, the Senate determined that there was “grave and probable cause” to believe that Cowan was guilty of impeachable offenses, and it was determined that a trial would proceed. It was a contentious business. The Bismarck Tribune called it the “biggest battle ever seen in house since the Louisiana lottery fight in pioneer days.”

The Cowan trial was front page fodder for newspapers. The matter dragged on for months. Finally on May 12th, an Associated Press dispatch announced that Judge Cowan had been found innocent on all of the seventy-four charges filed against him. The announcement was followed by wild scenes of celebration as the judge’s supporters rushed to congratulate him. Cowan returned to Devils Lake to an enthusiastic reception.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Evening Times. “Cowan Case is Getting Ready.” 20 February, 1911.

Bismarck Tribune. “House Reverses Itself.” 1 March, 1911.

Golden Valley Chronicle. “Held Court While Drunk.” 14 April, 1911.

The Commoner. “Associated Press Dispatch.” Lincoln, Nebraska. 12 May, 1911.

North Dakota Courts. “John F. Cowan.” "http://www.ndcourts.gov/court/bios/cowan.htm" http://www.ndcourts.gov/court/bios/cowan.htm Accessed 8 January, 2017.

Journal of the Senate of North Dakota sitting as a High court of impeachment for the trial of Hon. John F. Cowan, judge of the Second judicial district. Legislative Assembly, North Dakota, 1911