Born: Sunday, November 6th, 1853
Died: Wednesday, August 31st, 1921
Birthplace: Isle La Motte, Vermont
Career: City Attorney (1878-1881)
Served: Monday, November 11th, 1889 to Monday, January 9th, 1899
Chief Justice: Monday, January 11th, 1897 to Sunday, January 1st, 1899
Political Party: RepublicanElmon Scott was born on a small island in Lake Champlain, the eldest of four children. In 1864, at the age of eleven, he moved with his family to a farm in Chester, south-central Michigan. Scott attended common schools, high school, and an academy in the district, and worked on a farm during summers. He began to read the law on his own while on the farm and in 1875 joined a law office in Charlotte, Michigan, to read under the supervision of a licensed attorney. The Michigan bar admitted him in 1877 and he served as city attorney for Charlotte from 1878 to 1881.
In October 1881 Scott headed west with an immigrant wagon train, $200 in his pocket. He worked on a farm near Boise, Idaho, drove an ox team in Walla Walla, Washington, and finally, upon hearing that a cousin lived in Pomeroy, moved there to open a law office in January 1882. He married Eleanor McBrearty in Pomeroy the same year. They had four children, two boys and two girls.
Voters elected Scott mayor of Pomeroy for two terms. In 1889 the Republican party placed him on its ticket in an effort to see southeastern Washington represented on the state supreme court. At that time, the Seattle Times, an unyielding supporter of Republican candidates, reported:
Mr. Scott is regarded by members of the bar of the first judicial district as one of the safest lawyers among them, whose opinions are sound and his points always well fortified by authorities. He is not an advocate, but his turn of mind is eminently judicial. It is believed he will prove a learned and impartial judge.
It appeared from the paper’s lukewarm endorsement of Scott that he was a legal and political unknown. Actually, he had been prominent in southeast Washington politics. For example, in the spring of 1889 there was a special election for three delegates to the constitutional convention. The Republicans nominated Scott, but Republican Samuel Cosgrove, later to be elected governor, chose to run as a delegate under an independent label, defeating Scott. Later, in the election for the first slate of state officials in 1889, the Republicans, angry at Cosgrove’s earlier repudiation of the party, chose Scott as their candidate for the supreme court, although Cosgrove had hoped for the nomination.
In October, Scott won election as one of the first judges and, at thirty-six, the youngest, on the high bench. His 33,800 votes gave him a comfortable margin of 9,224 over the nearest Democratic rival. As required by the new constitution, the five justices drew lots to determine the length of terms. Judge Thomas Anders and Scott got the three-year positions. In 1892 the Republican convention again nominated Scott and he won reelection to a full six-year term by a margin of 6,631 votes over the closest Democrat.
Perhaps Judge Scott’s most readable, if not notable, opinion was his ringing dissent in the “Opium Den Case” of 1890:
It is the one great principle of our form of government expressed throughout that soul-inspiring document, our national constitution, that the individual right of self control is not to be limited, only to that extent which is necessary to promote the general welfare … When one becomes a member of society he necessarily parts with some rights or privileges which, as an individual, not affected by his relations to others, he might retain.
A body politic is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good. This does not confer power upon the whole people to control rights which are purely and exclusively private.
The courts must have a right of review or control; Scott believed there were limits to government intrusion into private behavior and the courts were primarily responsible for establishing these limits, actions of the legislature notwithstanding.
During his nearly ten years on the state’s high bench, the older and more experienced men on the court overshadowed Judge Scott. In rare instances like his dissent in the Opium Den Case, he could rise to an occasion, but most of the time he appeared satisfied to accommodate his personal views to the majority. He wrote slightly fewer than the average number of majority opinions and dissented infrequently. He agreed more with Judge Anders than with any other court members. He tended to acquiesce to the legislative version when the court confronted a constitutional question regarding the validity of a law. As a restraintist, he often joined Judge Ralph Dunbar in the few constitutional questions appealed to the high bench.
In 1890 Scott moved his family from Pomeroy to Whatcom County near what later became Bellingham. After retiring from the supreme court in 1899 at age forty-six, he practiced law in Bellingham. He won acquittal in a much publicized trial for statutory rape in 1901 in Bellingham and continued to have a successful legal practice until 1920. That year he moved to Seattle and then San Francisco, where he died in 1921.
Seattle Times, 12 Sept. 1889; C. S. Reinhart, History of the Supreme Court of the Territory and State of Washington (n.d.), p. 85; Charles Sheldon and Michael Stohr-Gillmore, “In the Beginning: The Washington Supreme Court a Century Ago,” University of Puget Sound Law Review, vol. 12 (1989), pp. 247-284; Sheldon, “Then There Were Five: The First Washington Supreme Court,” De Novo, vol. 3 (1989), pp. 1,3,6.
The preceding biography is from Charles Sheldon's The Washington High Bench: A Biographical History of the State Supreme Court, 1889-1991, © 1992 by the Board of Regents of Washington State University. Reprinted here with permission and licensed to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License by The Temple of Justice Project.