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Upon the announcement of his death, in March, 1868, the Bar of Schenectady County called a meeting to express their profound sorrow for his loss. This meeting was largely attended. Hon. John Sanders was called to the chair, who, on taking it, addressed his brethren in a speech of deep feeling and eloquence. A committee on resolutions was appointed, consisting of Hon. J. S. Landon, Hon. Thomas B. Mitchell, S. A. Daggett, J. Fuller and A. P. Strong, Esqrs., who presented by their chairman brief, touching resolutions, eloquent and heartfelt expressions of sorrow for the death of the distinguished jurist they memorialized.
In presenting the resolutions Judge Landon said: "We honor our deceased brother, not so much on account of the high places of trust and of honor to which he was called and worthily filled, for none know better than our profession that in our age and time high official place is not the truest evidence of high merit. The bat can reach that eminence as well as the eagle. But we honor him because through all the years of his early and later manhood he dignified, adorned and elevated the profession of the law, even in the estimation of lawyers themselves. No pretense, no art of a demagogue, no superficial acquirements, can give the lawyer high rank among lawyers; only merit, and real merit, can win that. Judge Paige, by the cheerful assent of his associates, long had place among the few who stand at the front rank of the Bar of our State. Others, doubtless, surpassed him in the gift of eloquence which charms while it instructs, but none in that tireless industry, that exhaustive learning, which, guided by the enlightened conscience and disciplined brain, compels, alike from principle and authority, the law to stand, as Bacon called it, 'the perfection of human reason.' Throughout the State Judge Paige commanded the respect and honor of the learned and the good."
We only give a portion of Judge Landon's eloquent and appropriate eulogy. When he said that "throughout the State the departed jurist commanded respect and honor," he uttered the sentiment of the Bench and the Bar in all the State, as was exhibited by many public demonstrations.
The Schenectady Bar has furnished four Justices of the Supreme Court, viz.: Joseph C. Yates, appointed February 8, 1808; Alonzo C. Paige, elected June 7,1847; Piatt Potter, elected November 3,1857.
HON. PLATT POTTER.
In writing the biography of the eminent jurist whose name appears at the head of this sketch, we speak of one long accustomed to the struggles of the Bar, one who has for many years pronounced the law from the Bench. He is one who, in his sphere, has discharged his duties with such probity and honor, such learning and ability, as entitles him to the highest esteem of the Bench, the Bar, and the public.
Hon. Piatt Potter was born at Galway, Saratoga County, N. Y., April 6, 1800. He is perhaps one
of the oldest judges and lawyers in the State; one of those through whom one generation speaks its thoughts, appeals and sympathies to another. His father, Restcome Potter, was a native of Massachusetts, but removed to New York early in life. Notwithstanding the non-combatant principles of himself and his ancestors, who were members of the Society of Friends, he engaged in military service during the war with the mother country, under Ethan Allen (the noted hero of Ticonderoga) when demanding the surrender of the fort in the name of the "Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress."
Later in life he received a colonel's commission in the militia from Governor George Clinton, for whom he named one of his sons. He removed to Saratoga County about 1794, and from thereto Schenectady in about 1806, and followed the occupation of farming. A man of energy and public spirit, he was chosen to fill various official positions, being in turn Alderman of the City, Justice of the Peace, and for sixteen years a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas. He was possessed of commanding influence in his day, and died, greatly regretted, in 1853. The mother of Judge Piatt Potter was Lucinda (Strong) Potter, of Litchfield, Conn., who was also descended from patriotic ancestry. During his boyhood, Judge Potter attended the common schools and the academy at Schenectady, from which he graduated in 1824. He immediately began the study of law under the direction of Hon. Alonzo C. Paige, afterward a Judge of the Supreme Court. He was admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court in 1828. He entered upon the practice of his profession at Minaville, Montgomery County, and continued thus occupied till 1833, when, removing to Schenectady, he entered into partnership with Mr. Paige, his former preceptor. This connection continued for a period of thirteen years. Upon its dissolution, Judge Potter practiced alone for a time, but was subsequently associated in practice with distinguished legal men who have occupied high positions of official honor both in the State and National Government. In the autumn of 1830, Mr. Potter was elected Member of Assembly from Montgomery County. During this session of the Legislature, a committee, of which Judge Potter was chairman, was appointed to consider the matter of providing improved accommodations for the insane. He made the report, and introduced the first bill to erect an asylum at Utica for lunatics. He served also during the same period of legislative labor on the Judiciary Committee. In 1836 he was married to Antoinette, daughter of the Rev. Winslow Paige, D. D. From 1839 to 1847 he held the office of District Attorney for Schenectady County, and was at the same time Master and Examiner in Chancery, having been appointed to that position in 1828, and continuing to exercise its functions till the abolishment ,of the Court in Chancery about 1847. In 1857 he was elected Justice of the Supreme Court of New York, running as candidate against his former partner, Judge A. C. Paige. He was returned by a small majority, serving dur
ing one of the most critical periods of our political history. During this term he also served as a Judge of the Court of Appeals. He was re-elected in 1865 to the Supreme Bench of the State without opposition. In the same year he was elected trustee of Union College, which office he continues to hold, and which institution conferred on him in 1867 the degree of LL.D.
He was always a staunch Republican in political sentiments. His judicial services during the rebellion, and the four years of trying national experience which immediately preceded it, were of the utmost value to the Government.
Noted for more than usual mental readiness and penetration, and great activity in the performance of every duty, Judge Potter has filled with honor many high official positions in the State. His election to the Supreme Bench of the Commonwealth, and his long continuance as a member of that distinguished body, evince the appreciation in which not only his talents but his worth are held by those whose interest have been the object of his judicial care. His labors as a legislator showed his large philantrophy and his wise statesmanship. As a jurist, he stands high in the State. His argument before the Assembly upon the case of the supposed "High Breach of Privilege of the Honorable the Assembly of the State of New York, in the matter of the Hon. Henry Ray, Member of Assembly from Ontario," exhibits his profound knowledge of the constitutional rights and powers of the judiciary as a co-ordinate branch of the Government, the extent of the law of legislative privilege, and those sound principles of law and equity underlying just legislative and judicial action.
This case was novel and unprecedented; neither in the legislative nor judicial history of this State had any case similar to it been known.
The facts in the case, briefly stated, are as follows: On the 20th of January, 1870, a subpoena, requiring one Henry Ray to appear and testify as a witness in a criminal proceeding then pending before the Grand Jury of Saratoga, Oyer and Terminer, was issued under the authority of that Court, Hon. Piatt Potter, one of the Justices of the Supreme Court, presiding. The subpoena was duly served on Ray at the City of Albany. He refused to obey its mandates on the grounds of his privilege as Member of Assembly of the State of New York, then in session. The District Attorney of Saratoga County then applied to the Court for an attachment against Ray for such disobedience. It was granted by the Court, and the officer was directed to serve the same by producing the body of Ray before the Court. He went to Albany on the morning of the 21st and arrested Ray at his lodgings. Ray insisted on his privilege, and refused to accompany the officer, who then informed him that he should take him by force. Under protest, the gentleman submitted himself to the custody of the officer.
When the arrest of Ray was communicated to the House of Assembly, it created great excitement in that body, and elicited an exciting debate.
It was regarded as a question involving a high breach of privilege of the House, and an insult to their dignity. It was finally referred to the Committee on Grievances for grave consideration. This Committee was composed of seven of the then most experienced members of the House. The Hon. Thomas C. Field was Chairman. After thorough inquiry and a full investigation, the Committee presented an elaborate report, stating the facts and circumstances of the case, the effect of the act upon the character and dignity of the House, the encroachments on legislative rights of the law of Parliamentary privileges, and of the danger of the public interests if the precedent coming from such a source should pass without publicrebuke. The Committee came to the conclusion '' that the arrest of the Hon. Henry Ray, on January 21, 1870—a Member of Assembly from the First District of the County of Ontario—on an attachment issuing out of the Court of Oyer and Terminer then being held in the County of Saratoga, of which the Hon. Piatt Potter was Presiding Justice, was a high breach of the privileges of this House by the said Potter, and deserves the censure of this House. Your Committee, therefore, respectfully submit the following resolution:
"Resolved, That the Hon. Piatt Potter, Justice of the Supreme Court of the Fourth Judicial District, be summoned and required to appear before the bar of this House for a high breach of its privilege in issuing an attachment for the arrest of the Hon. Henry Ray, a Member of Assembly of the State of New York from the First District of the County of Ontario; and that the House will then and there take such action as the House in its judgment may see fit."
A similar resolution was passed in relation to the District Attorney of Saratoga County, who applied for the attachment against Ray.
The notice to appear at the Bar of the House and answer was served on the Judge February 14, 1870, only two days previous to that appointed for the hearing.
At twelve o'clock noon on the 16th of February, Judge Potter appeared at the bar of the Assembly, when the Speaker of the House briefly stated to him the charges which he was required to answer, and called upon him to state any excuse for his conduct in issuing his attachment against Hon. Henry Ray, a member of the House.
Judge Potter, who had appeared with Hon. Wm. A. Beach, as counsel, proposed that that gentleman should answer for him. Mr. Fields stated that the presence of counsel in such cases was unusual, whereupon the Speaker declared the Judge could not be heard through his counsel.
"Then," said Judge Potter, "I will speak for myself." He then entered on his remarks with the calm confidence of one who can rely upon himself in any emergency. His argument was able, profound and elaborate; every authority bearing on the matter in any way—whether Fnglish or American—was fully considered and digested. It did not touch upon anything which would excite the fancy, for it contained nothing but logic, learning and facts. The Assembly and many Senators who came to be present, and a vast throng of spectators, listened with deep and unwearied attention. All who heard it were lost to everything except the words which fell from the lips of the speaker, standing under such peculiar circumstances. But he had the complete mastery of his subject, and his words flowed with intellectual energy.
•We regret that we have not space to give in detail his remarkably able arguments—this great defense of an independent judiciary. It was rewarded by a great and signal triumph.
"Although," said the Judge, in concluding his argument, "I have appeared here and offered this defense, I do not say that I submit this case to you, though probably that will be the effect of your action; but, sir, I stand here Protesting, earnestly Protesting, that I am not here in obedience to your power, but here out of courtesy to an independent department of this Government."
At the close of this argument, Thomas C. Fields, Member from the City of New York, rose and made a motion that Judge Potter withdraw from the House until his case could be disposed of.
The Speaker then informed the Hon. gentleman that he could withdraw to the library till his case was decided.
Judge Potter.—"I prefer to stay, and unless driven from the House by its power shall remain."
The Speaker.—"The request of the Hon. Judge will be granted."
judge Potter. — "I have made no request," taking his seat.
A long and exciting debate in the House followed. Mr. Fields offered a resolution that Hon. Piatt Potter, in issuing the attachment for the arrest of Hon. Henry Ray, Member of Assembly from Ontario, was guilty of a high breach of the privileges of this House, and that he be reprimanded by the Speaker in the presence of this House.
This resolution received no support and was withdrawn, whereupon Mr. Alvord, of Onondaga, offered the following amendment to Mr. Field's resolution.
Resolved, "That the Hon. Piatt Potter was mistaken as to the privileges of this House in the action taken by him in the arrest of Hon. Henry Ray, but this House do not believe that intention or desire to interfere with the independence or dignity of the House actuated him in the performance of that which he deemed his official duty."
Mr. Wm. D. Murphy offered a substitute for that resolution, to the efTect that Judge Potter be discharged from the custody of the House until the hour of twelve o'clock on the first day of March, and that in the meantime the opinion of the Attorney-General be communicated as to the term "Civil Process" in the statute exempting legislators from arrest. This was lost.
The question was then taken upon the motion of Mr. Alvord, which was carried by a vote of 92
to 15, and thus ended the case, a sketch of which only is contained in Barbor's Reports, Vol. 55, page 625.
Very soon after Judge Potter's discharge, he received a large number of letters, "the voluntary congratulations of the jurists, statesmen and lawyers, names distinguished in the State and nation." They were written to the Judge as the indorsement of the soundness of his argument upon the question of the independence of the judiciary. These letters, though not written with the object of publication, have appeared in a pamphlet containing the argument of Judge Potter, published by and at the request of members of the Bar in the counties of Rensselaer, Saratoga, Montgomery and Schenectady, to which publication Judge Potter consented, inasmuch as numerous and material errors and omissions in the newspaper report of the argument demanded correction.
Further evidence of the high esteem in which the judiciary and the bar held Judge Potter, and the gratification his legislative triumphs gave them, was exhibited in the September following that event. A State Judicial Convention was held at Rochester in September, 1870, for the purpose of nominating a candidate for Judge of the Court of Appeals. It was chiefly attended mostly by judges and exjudges. Mr. Potter was unanimously chosen permanent President of the Convention, upon the express grounds of his triumphant victory over the Legislature on the question of the independence of the judiciary.
Judge Potter's written opinions and judgments exhibit the profound lawyer, the thoughtful, patient and investigating judge.
He has attained distinction as a writer. Among his written productions we refer to the following:
In 1870, while still on the bench serving as judge, he prepared a work upon the construction and interpretation of American Statutes and Constitutions. In it he also included, with approval, the law of Fngland, as far as applicable, and as laid down by one Dwarris,a distinguished law writer of that country. The work prepared by Judge Potter is entitled "Potter's Dwarris." It is a work universally approved as authority in all the States of this country. In 1875 he compiled and greatly enlarged, with the later authorities, a treatise on Fquity Jurisprudence, originally prepared by John Willard. This is known as Potter's edition of that work. In 1879 he prepared an original work on corporations, in two volumes, entitled "Potter on Corporations." Each of these three works has been recognized in this country as standard authority, and they are now used as books for study and instruction in the Albany and other law schools.
Judge Potter is distinguished for his domestic and social qualities. His own fireside is, to him, the dearest place on earth. His conversation is agreeable and instructive. His long and large acquaintance with distinguished men of the past and the present, and his reminiscences of their careers, give an historic interest to his conversation. He possesses the rare faculty of eliciting the strong points in the person's character with whom he converses.