Thursday, July 2, 2009

Page Morris: hit and run

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Robert Page Walter Morris, more commonly known as either Page Morris or Robert P. Morris, might well be the least scandalous figure to appear on this blog so far. With a long career as a teacher, lawyer, congressman, and judge, Morris was never implicated in any crime or official misconduct. However, his position did earn him more attention for an incident later in his life than he would have otherwise received.

Morris was born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1853. He attended the College of William and Mary and graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1872. He stayed at the school to become an assistant professor of mathematics for a year, then moved on to teach mathematics at the Texas Military Institute from 1873 to 1876. Morris also became a professor of applied mathematics at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas from 1876 to 1879.

At some point, Morris turned his attention to law, and he was admitted to the bar in 1880. He returned to his hometown to open a private practice. Morris made his first attempt at office in 1884, running for the House of Representatives in 1884 as a Republican, but was unsuccessful. He moved to Duluth, Minnesota, in 1886 and three years later became a municipal judge in that city. In 1894, he became city attorney, and in 1895 he was appointed district judge of Minnesota's 11th district. He resigned this position the next year, when he was elected to the House of Representatives.

Morris won the next two elections as well before declining to run for renomination in 1902. His most notable achievement came in his last term, when he introduced a bill that came to be known as the Morris Bill. The Nelson Act of 1889 had sought to relocate Indians living in Minnesota and take control of the vacated lands. By the turn of the century, the Chippewa Indians had ceded some three million acres to the federal government. However, the government had advanced more money than it had received from timber sales, and so the Indian treasury (overseen by the government) was in deficit. The main problem with the Nelson Act was that it allowed for widespread fraud to take place in the timber sales, thus reducing the amount of money that went into the government coffers.

The Morris Bill sought to prevent such fraud by having the government take on the supervision and logging responsibilities. It changed the measure of timber sales to the quantity after a cut, as opposed to the previous method where the timber was estimated and sold based on the stumps. The bill also had the pine sold by sealed rather than open bid, eliminated a section on dead and downed wood, and created a 225,000-acre forest reserve that was the basis for the Chippewa National Forest. The bill was passed into law in 1902, and one estimate said two to three times as much money would go toward the Indian treasury under the new system.

In February of 1903, one month after Morris left Congress, he was nominated by President Theodore Roosevelt to be U.S. District Court judge for Minnesota. The Senate confirmed the appointment the next month. Morris would hold the position for the next 20 years, occasionally handling cases that showed up on the national scene. In one, he sentenced a man who had sent a threatening letter to Roosevelt to a year in prison; the man said he had been under the influence of cocaine at the time.

Morris himself became the subject of the news in October of 1921. The New York Times reported that he had been sitting in Salt Lake City, Utah around that time; however, he had made his way over to California for some reason. There, in Pasadena, Morris accidentally struck a pedestrian named Elizabeth Holmes with his vehicle. Luckily, Holmes was only slightly injured, but Morris only stopped after motorcycle officers had given chase for seven blocks.

Morris was arrested for failing to stop and render assistance to Holmes, and pleaded not guilty to a charge of reckless driving. A trial was set for November, but Holmes ultimately admitted to a reduced charge of failing to give a traffic signal. He avoided jail and paid a $10 fine.

The accident did not affect Morris's appointment as federal judge, but by April of 1922 he had announced that he would be retiring. He did so in 1923, relocating to Pasadena. In 1924, he died in Rochester, Minnesota.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, The Federal Judicial Center, "A Year For Threatening Roosevelt" in the New York Times on Apr. 7 1905, "Federal Judge Arrested" in the New York Times on Oct. 21 1921, "Accuses Judge of Reckless Driving" in the New York Times on Oct. 22 1921, "Judge Fined in Minnesota" in the New York Times on Nov. 27 1921, Forestry and Irrigation for January 1906 by the American Forestry Association, Law Notes for April 1922 published by the Edward Thompson Company, The White Pine Industry in Minnesota: A History by Agnes M. Larson

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