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William Mitchell, Associate Justice, 1881-1900

William Mitchell

Portrait of William Mitchell



Namesake of William Mitchell College of Law and nationally known attorney



William Mitchell was born in Stamford, Ontario, Canada on November 19, 1832. He was the son of John Mitchell and Mary Henderson who were immigrant farmers from Scotland. He attended private schools in Canada and in 1948, at the age of 16, he moved to the United States and attended Jefferson College at Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1853. Upon graduation, he moved in with a friend's family in Virginia (which later became West Virginia). He taught for two years at Morgantown Academy, West Virginia while studying law at his friend's father's law firm. He was admitted to the bar in 1857, and soon thereafter moved with his friend to Winona, Minnesota where they set up a legal practice. That same year in September he married his first wife, E. Jane Smith, who was from Virginia. He integrated quickly to his new home and was a member of the second Legislature of Minnesota (1859-1860). He also served one term as County Attorney for Winona County. He is also known to have invested in business in Winona during this time. In 1867 his wife died, leaving him to care for their three daughters. He remarried in July of 1872 to Francis M. Smith of Chicago. In 1874 he was elected District Judge in the Third Judicial District and he was reelected in 1880. In 1877 he was called upon to fill-in on the Supreme Court when two of the three Justices had to recuse themselves from the case. A few years later, in 1881, he was appointed Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court by Governor Pillsbury to fill one of the two new seats on the court created by the Laws of 1881, which increased the size of the court to five. In 1891 his second wife died. He served on the court until January 1900 when he was not re-elected due to partisan politics. For a time, he worked in private practice with his son by his second wife, William DeWitt Mitchell, who later became the Solicitor General of the United States and the U.S. Attorney General. He died while on vacation at Lake Miltona near Alexandria, Minnesota on August 21, 1900.

At the time of his death, Justice Mitchell had written over 1500 opinions, more than any other jurist in the nation. According to the Jaggard profile (Great American Lawyers, 1907), this works out to 1 opinion every 3 days for 19 years. These appeared in 52 volumes of the Minnesota Reports. His opinions were widely read and influential, even in other parts of the country. In November of 1900, the St. Paul College of Law first opened and the school founders had hoped to have Mitchell on the faculty, but he died before the school opened. In 1956, after it had merged with the Minneapolis-Minnesota Law School, the schools were renamed as the William Mitchell College of Law.

You may read more about Justice Mitchell in the links below, and in the book Testimony: Remember Minnesota’s Supreme Court Justices, which is a source of this brief biography.

Signature of William Mitchell

Image credits: Portrait of William Michell from History of the Bench and Bar of Minnesota, Volume I. William Mitchell Signature from brief submitted to the Minnesota Supreme Court, 1871.

Additional resources