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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Judge Currey became state’s Chief Justice

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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1863 election gave him coveted seat as state’s supreme court leader

By the late 1850s, John Currey was recognized as one of the most brilliant lawyers in northern California. In June 1858, he was nominated for the position of Justice to the Supreme Court of California by a segment of the Democratic Party, the Anti-Lecompton movement.

This movement stemmed from the case of Dred Scott, argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1856-57, in which the courts decided that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the territories. Three of the judges also ruled that a black person “whose ancestors were ... sold as slaves” could not claim the rights as a federal citizen. This court case further deepened the developing conflict between North and South and was also hotly discussed in California.

As an outspoken opponent of slavery and its establishment in California, John Currey was an obvious candidate for the Democratic Party. Southern sympathies ran deep in California, though, and the ticket was defeated.

Unfazed by this loss, the Democratic Party nominated John Currey the following June, 1859, as their candidate for California Governor. The campaign was drawn out and bitter, and once again, John Currey lost.

In 1863, he ran for the office of Justice of the Supreme Court of California on the Union party ticket. Once again, the campaign seems to have been bitter, including slander and verbal attacks on Currey that included the term “traitor.”

On Oct. 31, 1863, the Solano County Herald published a lengthy letter to the editor by an unnamed “Pioneer.” This was typical at the time, commenting on attacks on Judge Currey by the newspaper “The Press.”

The letter ran:

“Editor Herald: - The Press last week contains an attack upon Judge Currey, which deserves something more than merely passing rebuke. Reckless as that paper has shown itself to be in its disregard of truth and the proprieties of life, it was hardly to have been expected that it would indulge in so atrocious an amusement as libeling one of the purest and most upright men in the State. But being like the wolf which has had a taste of human blood, ravenous for more, henceforth no man’s character or reputation however elevated, is likely to be sacred or safe from slanderous attacks.”

The nearly unanimous sentiment of the community in this county is, that if there is a man in the State whose private and public character is above reproach, it is Judge Currey. This is shown in the fact, that notwithstanding the vituperation of the Press and its supporters who succeed in many instances in having his name scratched. Judge Currey received a decidedly larger vote than any of his associates upon the ticket. This was the case in other counties where he is well known, as will be shown by his official returns when published. It is equally well known, here and elsewhere, that he has been and continues to be a firm and consistent supporter of the Administration in its efforts to crush rebellion; that he detests the doctrine of secession and condemns those who advocate it; and that he is one of the very last men in the State of whose unqualified Unionism the people entertain, or have cause to entertain, the slightest doubt. The writer of this well remembers the enthusiastic applause which greeted the patriotic sentiments Judge Currey expressed at a public meeting in the Presidential Campaign three years ago (Abraham Lincoln), when he hurled defiance at all those who threatened secession, rebellion and civil war against the Union in case they were beaten at the election. What he then said sent a thrill through the nerves of every person present and helped to make the very sentiment which now inspires the breasts of all true Union men. That he has always and ever since stood by, and that he continues to stand by that sentiment cannot be doubted by any right minded man.

“The insulting insinuation the ‘the ermine of the Supreme Bench is to be polluted by such a man,’ will be regarded by the people as unworthy of serious consideration. They will notice the source whence it emanates, and treat it with the contempt it deserves ...

“To throw so opprobrious an epithet as traitor at such a man as John Currey, is the brazenness of effrontery, and the party guilty of it deserves the scorn as well as reprobation of a right thinking community. Everyone who knows John Currey knows that he is a sincere, earnest and truthful man, whose integrity and patriotism are unquestionable; that he possesses every requisite qualification for an able and impartial Judge; that he is a lover of virtue and hater of vice. And now, because these are his characteristics, and because he does not hesitate conscientiously to give his opinion when called for, in favor of virtue and fitness on the one hand, and against vice and unfitness on the other, in so important a matter as the election of a District Judge - thereby developing those manly traits which commend themselves to every unprejudiced mind - is made the subject of abuse by unworthy who hope to debase him to their own dead level. The people of California (have) too much sound sense to suffer so vile an attempt to succeed.

“In Solano county, where the Press is known, its limited influence scarcely entitles it to this notice; but elsewhere in the State, where its pretense of respectability might cause it to be heard and heeded, it is fit that its calumnies should be met and refuted, for the honor of Solano county, as well as for the sake of impartial justice.”

This time John Currey’s bid for the Supreme Court succeeded. In Solano County, the votes were published in the Solano County Herald on Nov. 7, 1863. Currey received 589 votes in Vallejo, 322 in Benicia, 25 in Green Valley, 242 in Suisun, 90 in Vacaville, 92 in Silveyville, 20 in Tremont No. 1, 20 in Tremont No. 2, 31 in Denverton, 58 in Rio Vista, 31 in Chaswell’s, and 20 in Maine Prairie. The total vote came to 1,543, 30 votes more than either of his two closest contenders had garnered.

John Currey was elected to a four-year term, beginning in 1864. Two years later, he was selected to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on Jan. 1, 1866. He served on the Supreme Court until the end of 1867.