Born: Tuesday, March 17th, 1857
Died: Friday, June 5th, 1925
Birthplace: Sherbrooke, Quebec
Career: South Dakota Constitutional Convention (1886; 1889)
South Dakota Legislature (1889-1890)
Superior Court (1892-1894)
Served: Monday, January 14th, 1895 to Friday, June 1st, 1900
Chief Justice: Monday, January 9th, 1899 to Friday, June 1st, 1900
Political Party: RepublicanMerritt J. Gordon, born in Sherbrooke, Canada, a small city approximately fifty miles north of Vermont, received his early education in public schools in Huntington County, Quebec, and in nearby Clinton County, New York. In 1874 he moved to Lanesboro, Minnesota, where he worked as a bank teller. He studied law under the supervision of an attorney and was admitted to the Minnesota bar in June 1878. In 1879 he moved to Dakota Territory, in what was later South Dakota, and opened a law office. There he met and married Jennie Thompson, and they became parents to a son and daughter.
The future judge was elected a member of the Dakota constitutional conventions of 1886 and 1889. He served as district attorney for Brown County in northeastern South Dakota from 1884 to 1888, presided over the Dakota Fifth Judicial District Bar Association from 1885 to 1889, and was Aberdeen City Attorney for two terms. Active in Republican circles, he unsuccessfully sought the party’s nomination as territorial delegate to Congress in 1886. When South Dakota achieved statehood in 1889, voters elected Gordon to the first state legislature where he chaired the House Judiciary Committee. In the spring of 1890 he moved to Olympia and became associated with Colonel T. V. Eddy in the practice of law.
Gordon, elected to the Thurston-Mason County Superior Court in 1892, served two years before winning election to the supreme court on the Republican ticket in 1894, defeating the closest Democrat by nearly 20,000 votes. He resigned in June 1900 to accept the position of counsel for the Great Northern Railway Company in Spokane. Later, in 1909, Gordon moved to Tacoma to return to private practice in the partnership of Gordon and Nolte.
Although returning to law practice, Gordon remained active in the legal and political concerns of the high bench. According to one newspaper account:
After Gordon left the state’s high bench in 1900 he continued in active politics, evincing from time to time especial interest and activity in the selection of members of the supreme court, which activity continued up to and including the campaign of 1908 when he was active in raising a fund for use in advocating the candidacy of ex-Judge Milo Root.
It was this relationship with Judge Root that proved to be Root’s undoing and the beginning of Gordon’s fall from grace.
Rumors persisted in 1908 that Gordon had been short in his accounts with the Great Northern Company and that some of this money had been used to influence supreme court decisions. Specifically, some critics accused Supreme Court Judge Root of showing Gordon a draft of a denial of rehearing in Harris v. Great Northern Railway Company, and claimed Gordon rewrote parts of it so that it narrowed the opportunities to bring future cases against the railway company.
Judge Root chose to resign from the high bench, but Gordon’s troubles continued. When he left his position with Great Northern, it was not clear whether he resigned willingly or under pressure from the company. In January 1909 Gordon was arrested for embezzling $9,200 from the Great Northern Company. Later, in May 1909, a grand jury indicted him, handing down additional charges.
During the grand jury investigation, Great Northern had promised full cooperation. But when the trial began, the company failed to produce subpoenaed materials, including vouchers, records of transactions, and other matters handled by Gordon. Railroad witnesses failed to appear and the Great Northern accounts in the Spokane Old National Bank were ruled inadmissible. Spokane County Prosecutor Fred Pugh was frustrated at every turn by the obstinacy of Great Northern and the brilliant tactics of defense attorneys Frank Graves, N. E. Nusum, and Potter Charles Sullivan.
At the end of Gordon’s trial in March 1910, Superior Court Judge H. L. Kennan made the following ruling:
It appears to me that there is no evidence to show that this defendant appropriated this money to his own use. .. The state in a case of this sort must show that the money was used for his own purposes and not diverted for other legitimate use, and I can not find this has been done. In the absence of representatives of the railway company to claim irregularities against him, the state can not make out the case. I therefore grant the motion of the defense and will instruct the jury [to rule] for the defendant.
How could a respected member of the legal profession, who had served with distinction nearly six years on the state’s highest bench, two as chief justice, be careless with a company’s funds? One acquaintance of Gordon suggested an answer:
Gordon is one of the most remarkable men I have ever seen. He could stay up all night, hire an automobile in the morning, go into the country with a party of friends, sing a few songs, drink some booze, and return to town apparently refreshed and ready for the legal business in which he was interested. On these trips he usually insisted on paying all expenses. He is a very good story teller, a good listener, and one of the best entertainers I ever knew. Apparently he has no sense of the value of money, and I often wondered what would be the finish at the clip at which he was going.
Although found not guilty in 1910, Judge Gordon did not regain the prominence he enjoyed before the publicity surrounding the trial. He returned to Tacoma to practice law, only to be the victim of another tragedy. On June 5, 1925, a runaway automobile struck down and killed him as he attempted to cross one of the steep bayside streets in downtown Tacoma.
Arthur Beardsley, “Root-Gordon Scandal,” chapter 41 of Beardsley manuscript, Washington State Archives; C. S. Reinhart, The History of the Supreme Court of the Territory and State of Washington (n.d.), pp. 85-86; H. James Boswell, American Blue Book: Western Washington (1922), p. 182; W. C. Wolfe, Sketches of Washingtonians (1906), p. 176; Charles Sheldon, A Century of Judging: A Political History of the Washington Supreme Court (1988), pp. 44, 46.
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.