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Pioneering Justice—Idaho's First State Supreme Court Justices

On July 3, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed the Idaho Admission Act, officially adding Idaho as the 43rd state in the Union. During the Idaho Constitutional Convention in 1889, delegates cited many reasons why the time was right for statehood, but one point stood out: an improvement in the courts. The Proceedings and Debates of the Constitutional Convention of Idaho noted that the territorial judicial system had been “the most intolerable, evil” and that the residents of the territory had been “deprived of the inestimable benefit of judicial precedents as a safeguard to [their] rights of person and property.” Because the president appointed territorial supreme court judges—the residents of the territory did not elect these individuals to office—there was a feeling that the judges did not always have their best interests at heart or in mind in their decisions. However, statehood and the adoption of the Idaho state constitution provided a pathway for a judicial system without allegiance elsewhere. 1890 and 1900 marked a crucial chapter in Idaho’s legal and political history as the young state navigated the complexities of statehood and established its legal foundation, and Idaho’s first elected state supreme court justices played a pivotal role in shaping the jurisprudence of the region.  

The first elected state supreme court justices—Issac N. Sullivan, Joseph W. Huston, and John T. Morgan—made indelible contributions to the state’s legal framework. Although the state constitution provided protections for many components of the new judiciary system, including physical representation across the state, requiring that the state supreme court hear oral arguments for appeals in Lewiston, a practice that still occurs (and more cities across the state) today, one thing it did not require was a politically balanced bench. In 1890, as individuals aspired to the three seats on the highest court, Sullivan, Huston, and Morgan all represented the Republican party and supported the 1890 party platform, which included a demand to repeal federal legislation classifying the public domain within Idaho as part of the “arid region” and making it unavailable for settlement. Idaho Republicans argued that such legislation “retarded the growth of the state and worked a great injustice to the people.” Despite all three individuals originally hailing from other states or territories and two having served as presidential appointees on the territorial supreme court, they took their roles on the bench seriously. 

Judge John Titus Morgan was born in Hamburg, New York, in 1831 and moved to Illinois with his family in 1843. He turned his attention to law after graduating from Lombard University in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1855. He, like most other aspiring lawyers of the time, studied in the law offices of another lawyer, General E.A. Paine, before returning to New York for his formal legal education. In 1856, he completed his BA in Law at the State Law School at Poughkeepsie, New York, and started his practice in Monmouth, Illinois. But the Civil War interrupted his budding career, and in August 1862, he enlisted with the Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He rose to the rank of Captain and received an honorable discharge in June 1865. He soon resumed his practice, and by 1870, he was called into politics. He served in the Illinois House of Representatives for two years, and in 1874, he was elected a member of the Illinois State Senate, serving in that capacity until 1878. In June 1879, President Hayes appointed him Chief Justice of the Idaho Territorial Supreme Court. President Arthur reappointed him Chief Justice, and he held the position until 1885, when President Cleveland changed the appointment. Between 1885 and 1889, he resumed private practice in Boise. He favored the idea of Idaho statehood and served as a delegate in the State Constitutional Convention, serving as chairman of the committee on the legislative department. In October 1890, he was elected to the State Supreme Court and served until 1897, when he resumed his law practice.  

The youngest of the three justices, Isaac N. Sullivan, was born in Delaware County, Iowa, on November 3, 1848. He received formal education in Adrian, Michigan, and studied law with J. M. Brayton of Delhi, Iowa. In 1879 was admitted to the bar by the Iowa Supreme Court. Two years later, he came to Hailey, Idaho, and practiced there until he was elected to the State Supreme Court. He also served as the first Chief Justice. Sullivan served on the bench for twenty-six years before resuming his private practice in Boise.  

Joseph W. Huston was born in Painesville, Ohio, on April 10, 1833, and was educated at Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he studied law and was admitted to practice in 1857. At the beginning of the Civil War, he enlisted as a member of the Fourth Michigan Cavalry and was promoted to the rank) of major. In 1863, he was honorably discharged on account of his health, returned home, and resumed the practice of law until 1869, when President Grant appointed him United States Attorney for the Territory of Idaho, which position he held until 1878. When elected to the Supreme Court in 1890, he drew the four-year term, was elected again in 1894, and served on the bench for a full term of six years. 

Lastly, Judge John Huston was born in Painesville, Ohio, on April 10, 1833. He received his formal educated in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and studied law under the direction of ex-Senator Stuart. He was admitted to the bar in 1857 and then moved to Paw Paw, Michigan, where he started his private practice. In 1861, he joined the 4th Michigan Cavalry and assisted in organizing the regiment. He rose to the rank of Major before being honorably discharged in 1863, with distinction, due to an injury. After he recovered, he resumed his practice, and in 1869, President Grant appointed him to the position of United States Attorney for Idaho. He held that position for nine years before resuming his private practice of law in Idaho. In 1890, the Idaho electorate elected him to the state supreme court, and in 1894, he was re-elected for a term of six years.  

Between 1890 and 1900, the Idaho State Supreme Court heard hundreds of cases that touched on everything from punishment and prevention of crimes to the rights and responsibilities of juries to water rights to constitutional law to monopolies. One of the most important cases heard during this decade concerned suffrage rights for women and resulted in the enfranchisement of Idaho women via a state constitutional amendment in 1896. The work of the judicial branch of government is but one component of the American Experiment, and in conjunction with the work of the executive and legislative branches of government, works in tandem to keep our democracy in balance.   

Written by State Historian HannaLore Hein



An Illustrated History of the State of Idaho: Containing a History of the State of Idaho from the Earliest Period of Its Discovery to the Present Time, Together with Glimpses of Its Auspicious Future; Illustrations and Biographical Mention of Many Pioneers and Prominent Citizens of To-Day. Chicago, Illinois: Lewis Publishing Company, 1899. 

Bianchi, Carl F., ed. Justice for the Times: A Centennial History of the Idaho State Courts. Boise, Idaho: Idaho Law Foundation, 1990. 

French, Hiram Taylor. History of Idaho; a Narrative Account of Its Historical Progress, Its People and Its Principal Interests. Vol. 1. 3 vols. Chicago, Lewis Publishing Co., 1914. 

Hart, Irving Warren. Proceedings and Debates of the Constitutional Convention of Idaho, 1889. Caldwell, Id.: Caxton printers, ltd., 1912. 

Hawley, James H. History of Idaho: The Gem of the Mountains. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1920. 


77-2-26 – Supreme Court 1909 

182 – Morgan 

838 – Huston 



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