Minnesota State Law Library
James Cornish Otis Jr. was born on March 23, 1912, in St. Paul, Minnesota. He grew up in the prestigious Cathedral Hill neighborhood and attended Saint Paul Academy. His early ambition was to become a minister, but his family had a tradition of producing lawyers, including his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Therefore, after earning a bachelor's degree at Yale, he returned to Saint Paul and completed his law degree at the University of Minnesota.
In 1937, he joined Otis, Faricy, Burger and Moore, the firm originally founded by his grandfather, George L. Otis. Otis practiced at the firm for ten years where he had the opportunity to work alongside his father, three uncles, and Warren E. Burger, who would later become Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He married his wife, Louise Geist, on January 8, 1938.
In 1942, Otis took a short break from practice to serve as a civilian with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. He returned to the firm in 1944 and served as President of the Minnesota State Bar Association that same year. Otis continued in private practice until 1948, when Governor Luther Youngdahl appointed him to fill a vacant seat on the Ramsey County municipal court.
In 1954, after serving six years on the municipal court, Otis was appointed to the seat vacated by the death of his uncle, Kenneth Gray Brill, on the Ramsey County District Court. He held that seat until 1961, when Governor Elmer Andersen appointed him Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Justice Otis held the seat through three additional terms before resigning September 1, 1982.
Justice Otis married his second wife, Constance, in 1974.
After leaving the bench, Justice Otis remained active in the community, serving as a trustee of Hamline University, The Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, and the Minnesota State Bar Foundation, and also as a member of the American Judicature Society, the Institute of Judicial Administration, and the Nature Conservancy.
Soon after returning from a hiking trip in Norway and just eight weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, Justice Otis died of pneumonia on March 15, 1993.
Justice Otis had 3 children, James, Emily and Todd.
You may read more about the life and work of Justice Otis in the Minnesota Supreme Court Historical Society's book: Testimony: Remembering Minnesota's Supreme Court Justices, which is a source of this brief biography.