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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Poverty at the Supreme Court


In the 19th century Wisconsin Supreme Court justices were paid so little that some of them had to go into debt merely to keep house in Madison. The city’s chief banker, Lucien Hanks, who started as a humble teller in 1860, revealed this in an article published in 1923.

We tend to think of such august figures as pillars of their community - - wealthy, learned, and as a stable as Wisconsin bedrock - - but Hanks shows some of them with their suspenders down, on the edge of bankruptcy.

Luther S. Dixon, who became Chief Justice in 1859, told Hanks he “came to Madison from Portage, easily worth $15,000” but a few years later was forced to borrow money just to meet the cost of serving on the Supreme Court. Justice Byron Paine, who had defended Sherman Booth, argued successfully that the Fugitive Slave Law was unconstitutional, and in the 1865 Ezekiel Gillespie case won the right of black citizens to vote, came trembling into the bank unable to make ends meet and not knowing where to turn.

You can read more about early members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court at our online collection of Local History & Biography Articles, and view pictures of some of them and their chambers at Wisconsin Historical Images.
:: Posted in Curiosities on July 6, 2005

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