Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Blackfoot Attorney and Idaho Supreme Court Justice William Lee [otd 12/11]

The Honorable William A. Lee, Idaho state Senator and Supreme Court Justice, was born December 11, 1859 in the extreme southeast corner of Nebraska. He was only four years old when his father was killed in the Civil War. William graduated from Washington University (St. Louis) with his LL.B. degree in 1885, and established a practice in Nebraska.

In 1892, Lee came west and opened a law office in Ogden, Utah. Five years later, he moved his practice to Salt Lake City. There, he helped write a major revision of the Utah legal code and served four years as Assistant Attorney General.

Meanwhile, in 1896, the American Falls Canal & Power Company retained Lee as an attorney. He became their General Counsel in 1904. Although based in Utah, the company sought to develop irrigation projects in Idaho. They planned for systems along the Snake River from above Blackfoot to below American Falls.

Lee came to Idaho in 1911 to represent the Company, but soon resigned that position to open a practice in Blackfoot. Unfortunately, tragedy struck soon after he arrived there. A son died from what was ruled an accidental gunshot to the head. The Idaho Register reported (June 4, 1912), “The revolver, a 38-calibre, had been borrowed by the boy who left his own gun, a 22-calibre, at home. Five chambers of the revolver had been emptied.”

From his offices in Blackfoot, William handled cases at all levels of the state courts, at federal circuit and district courts, and even the U. S. Supreme Court. He was a member of the American Bar Association, and served as vice president of the Idaho State Bar Association

In 1918, in his first try for public office, voters elected him to the state Senate by “a comfortable majority.” In that body, he served as a member of several committees, including the Judiciary Committee. He also Chaired the Committee on Code and Law Revision.

The Hawley biography for William Lee said that he traced his lineage back to the Lees of Westmoreland County, Virginia. (The Westmoreland Lees played a prominent role in the Revolutionary War, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee was born in the county).
U.S. destroyer laying smoke, 1918. National Archives.

Perhaps because of those roots, he had a strong interest in military history. One of William’s sons graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy and served on a destroyer during World War I. Naturally, the father followed the war news closely, and studied analytical reports after the war.

In 1920, the Idaho ballot included a Constitutional amendment to expand the state Supreme Court from three to five members. The measure enjoyed considerable support, so voters were also asked to select from a slate of candidates to fill the new positions. The amendment passed handily, and William A. Lee was one of the Justices elected at that time. He had ascended to the position of Chief Justice when he died in September 1926.
References: [Hawley]
Carl F. Bianchi (Ed.), Justice for the times: A Centennial History of the Idaho State Courts, Idaho Law Foundation, Boise (1990).
“Idaho State Supreme Court Justices, 1890-1993,” Reference Series No. 347, Idaho State Historical Society (1993).

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