As North Dakota was preparing to become a state in 1889, a group of Constitutional Convention delegates met in Bismarck in July and early August to write a constitution for the state.
The delegates were working off of a draft developed by Professor James Bradley Thayer of the Harvard Law School, but a number of delegates realized that there was a problem when they got to the eligibility of justices for the state Supreme Court: The man deemed to have the best legal mind in North Dakota, Guy Corliss, was not eligible.
Corliss, who was 31 years old, had moved to Grand Forks three years earlier, and according to Thayer's draft, he needed to be at least 35 and a state resident for five years. The delegates changed the wording, dropping the age to 30 and lowering the residency to three years. At the election of state officials a couple of months later, Corliss was elected and chosen to be chief justice.
Not only was he North Dakota's first chief justice, but he was also the youngest state chief justice in the U.S. After nine years on the bench, Corliss abruptly resigned to take on a new challenge — establishing North Dakota's first law school in his hometown of Grand Forks.
Guy Carlton Haines Corliss was born July 4, 1858, to Cyrus and Clarinda Corliss, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where Cyrus was justice of the peace. Guy attended the local public schools, and because of his intelligence, he skipped several grades, graduating from high school at the age of 15.
"He couldn't afford college, so while working in a local grocery store," he began studying law in June 1876 under the tutelage of J. Spencer Van Cleef, a well-respected Poughkeepsie attorney. In September 1879, Guy Corliss traveled to Brooklyn to take the New York bar exam, and after passing it, he established his law practice in Poughkeepsie.
In 1883, he married Effie Edson, and as his family began to grow and health issues apparently became an issue, Corliss decided it was time for a change and relocated to Grand Forks in the fall of 1886. Bismarck Tribune editor Clement Lounsberry later wrote, "He came to North Dakota in search of health and fame. He gained both."
In Grand Forks, Corliss entered into partnership with James H. Bosard, a veteran lawyer who also operated a large dairy enterprise. During the next three years, Corliss established a reputation as an excellent attorney, and it was reported that, "as a practitioner, he is well-read and has a quick and comprehensive mind."
In 1889, knowing that North Dakota would soon become a state, Corliss let influential Republicans know that he was interested in serving on the state Supreme Court. When it became apparent that the constitution, as it was written, precluded Corliss from serving on the court, action was taken to make certain that the prohibitive factors excluding him were rewritten to allow him to serve.
After Corliss was elected to the court, he was sworn in as chief justice. The biggest issue that he took a personal interest in was the institution of the Louisiana Lottery in North Dakota. In 1893, the lottery was to lose its charter in Louisiana and needed a state to serve as its "new base for disreputable operations."
Alexander McKenzie, the political kingpin in North Dakota, strongly pushed to have it moved to North Dakota, but Corliss, Gov. John Miller and a number of other morally-minded citizens opposed it. Despite the active efforts of Corliss and others, who warned citizens and legislators about the evil of the lottery, the North Dakota Senate passed the charter bill by a two-thirds majority.
On Feb. 6, 1890, Corliss, who was concerned that he would not be able to convince enough House members to reject the lottery, sent a telegram to President Benjamin Harrison, urging him and other national political leaders to intervene on North Dakota's behalf. When the national leaders did not respond, Gov. Miller hired a Pinkerton detective to investigate the underhanded techniques that were being used to influence the state legislators. The detective revealed that bribery had been used to pay legislators to vote for the lottery, and when this was proven, the House of Representatives never voted on its passage.
On Aug. 15, 1898, Corliss stunned many people when he announced that he was resigning his position on the state Supreme Court. When asked why he was doing this, he reportedly "answered that he wished to start a North Dakota law school." Apparently, Corliss had taken part in discussions with Webster Merrifield, president of the University of North Dakota (UND), about starting a law school on the UND campus in Grand Forks.
The law school opened in the summer of 1899 with Corliss as the only instructor, and it became "the first professional school to begin operation at UND." It is worth noting that the law school was established by a lawyer who never attended law school.
In 1902, Corliss hired Andrew Bruce as an instructor and two years later, Luther Birdzell became an instructor. Both of the men that Corliss hired would later be elected to serve on the North Dakota Supreme Court. With two excellent, academically educated instructors at the school, Corliss reduced his teaching load at UND and concentrated on his law practice, becoming one of the most sought-after attorneys in the state.
In 1912, Corliss moved to Portland, Ore., where he continued to practice law, and in 1930, he received an honorary doctor of laws degree from UND. Guy Corliss died Nov. 24, 1937.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.