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James D. Doty: Wisconsin's first judge

Written by Joseph A. Ranney, Attorney at Law
Phone: (608) 283-5612

James Duane Doty was born in upstate New York in 1799. After finishing school he migrated to the west and settled in the frontier community of Detroit where he was befriended by the governor of Michigan Territory, Lewis Cass.

In 1820 Doty accompanied Cass on a famous expedition through the largely unknown western part of the territory, which later became Wisconsin. Cass and Doty traveled in canoes across Lake Huron and Lake Superior. They then went down the Mississippi River to Prairie du Chien, traveled to Green Bay via the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers, and returned to Detroit. During the expedition Doty gained an appreciation of Wisconsin's Indians which would last the rest of his life. The immense possibilities of the western lands struck his imagination.

After Doty returned to Detroit he and Cass persuaded Congress to create a separate court for the western wilderness separate from Michigan's territorial courts. President Monroe appointed Doty the first judge of the new court. At age 24, Doty had a daunting task: to impose order on a huge, sparsely settled area which had almost no legal tradition. For the next nine years, Doty worked hard and largely accomplished his goals.

Doty was a stickler for decorum in his court wherever it was held -- usually in local taverns or cabins, since there was no money for courthouses. At the first session of court in Prairie du Chien in 1824, Joseph Rolette, a prominent local trader who viewed Doty as a rival for local power, got drunk and stood outside Doty's court "damning the court and all who took part in its proceedings and assuring claimants that they would find no justice there." Doty promptly had Rolette hauled inside on a charge of contempt of court, obtained an apology, and imposed a fine. He had no further trouble in Prairie du Chien.

Doty was a radical for his time in his view of how the law should treat Indians. In 1827 the Winnebago chief Red Bird led an unsuccessful uprising in the Prairie du Chien area to protest white settlement. Doty protested to Congress that Red Bird should not be tried in civil courts but military courts, because his acts were acts of war rather than ordinary crimes. Congress disagreed but President John Quincy Adams later pardoned Red Bird, probably with behind-the-scenes encouragement from Doty.

In a famous 1830 case, Doty threw out a jury verdict against Oshkosh, chief of the Menominees, for murder of another Indian. Doty pointed out the killing was justified under Indian custom because it was in retaliation for another killing. "Knowing as we do that [American] laws were not enacted for the Indian," said Doty, "it would be tyrannical and unjust to declare [Oshkosh] a malicious offender against rules which the same laws presume he could not have previously known." Doty's decision was unpopular with whites and ultimately cost him his job: in 1832, he was replaced with another judge.

Doty remained in Wisconsin. He was active in many development projects, served as territorial governor from 1841 to 1844, served in the state constitutional convention and was elected to Congress after statehood. In the early 1860s President Lincoln appointed him territorial governor of Utah, where he died in 1865.

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone. Distributed as a public service by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in honor of the state's sesquicentennial.

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