James Worthen 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Judge Oran Roberts and Riding the District Court Circuit Judge Oran M. Roberts presided over the first district court session in October 1850 for the newly established Ellis County. To understand why Roberts, who resided in San Augustine about 150 miles away, was the first judge to preside in Ellis County gives us insight into the development of trial courts and the bar in early Texas. Additionally, through Roberts, we gain understanding of how the tradition of Texas judges using a district court bench as a launching pad for political advancement began and how early generations of Texas lawyers were trained. Roberts, a 26-year-old Alabama lawyer, arrived in San Augustine in 1841. He began riding circuit as a lawyer practicing in the district court, traveling over an area stretching from the Sabine River to the Trinity River. The district courts (corresponding to the circuit courts in other states) were then held during the spring and fall months of the year. It was not unusual when the times for holding them arrived, to see a dozen lawyers with the judge, mount their horses, with saddle-bags, blanket, and tie-rope, and, thus equipped, start on their journey around the district, which then embraced many counties spreading over a large scope of country. … This mode of practice was kept up until the late civil war, after which the members of the bar became more and more localized in their practice.1 Roberts described other lawyers he practiced with as “men of great intellectual vigor.”2 This would certainly describe Roberts himself. He had a wide-ranging knowledge of ancient history and philosophy. His courtroom style emulated sermons of ministers but with the clear, cogent argumentation of lawyers. After he was appointed to the bench in 1846, contemporaries described him as an objective judge so concerned with legalistic analysis that he decided a case to pieces.3 He would go on to serve twice as chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, be elected as a U.S. senator, and serve two terms as governor. An Ellis County Minute Book A entry from Oct. 28, 1850, described Roberts as “on exchange” for the county’s first district court session. His docket was light; it took only eight pages to detail the three days he was on the bench. Contrast this with the October term in 1855 conducted by Judge John H. Reagan, which went for 72 pages in the corresponding Ellis County minute book.4 Roberts’ circuit-riding days were valuable to him in teaching law students. While living in San Augustine in the 1840s and 1850s, he taught law at a local university. During Reconstruction, he operated a law school in Gilmer. Some of his students there went on to become judges and one was on the Texas Supreme Court.5 Following his service as governor, he was appointed the first professor of the newly formed University of Texas School of Law. He taught for 10 years, and his students affectionately referred to him as the “Old Alcalde.” In addition to teaching law, he sought to develop in his students the same expansive views of the state’s qualities, resources, and people that he had received while riding horseback to practice law and sit as a judge earlier in his career.6 By Chief Justice James Worthen Notes 1. Oran M. Roberts, Preface to A Description of Texas, Its Advantages and Resources with Some Account of Their Development, Past, Present and Future (1881). 2. Id. 3. Id. 4. This was the same John H. Reagan who served in the cabinet of Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis as Postmaster General from 1861 to 1865. 5. Handbook of Texas Online, Oran Milo Roberts (Dec. 15, 2011, 5:15 p.m.), http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fro18. 6. Roberts, supra.
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