Illinois Judiciary Act of 1841

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Two politically contentious issues in Illinois led to the passage in the Illinois legislature of a law to reorganize the state judiciary branch. The first was a test case in the Jo Daviess County Circuit Court, Spraggins v. Houghton, a Whig Party challenge of an election in which an unnaturalized Irish immigrant cast a ballot. The court ruled against Spraggins, the election judge who had permitted the vote; and Stephen A. Douglas, a Democrat, took the case on appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. Believing that the Whig-dominated court (consisting of Whigs William Wilson, Samuel D. Lockwood, and Thomas C. Browne and Democrat Theophilus W. Smith) would decide the case on political principal, Douglas obtained a continuance for after the November election. The second issue was the refusal of Illinois Secretary of State Alexander P. Field, a Whig, to vacate his office when Democratic Governor Thomas Carlin sought to replace him with a Democrat, John A. McClernand. The Illinois Supreme Court sustained Field's position, and Illinois Whigs claimed that as long as there was no vacancy in the office, the governor had no legal authority to make a new appointment. The Whigs interpreted the secretary of state’s position as a check on the executive office. Democrats contended that the secretary of state served at the pleasure of the incumbent governor, that the office was not a lifetime appointment, and that it should act as a right-hand of the governor and not a check upon him.

All of this political controversy played a role in the 1840 election. Field, called King Alexander I in the Democratic press, was unpopular with Illinois voters, and so was the Whig Party's support of him. At this time, the Whig's opposition to foreign voters, who tended to vote along Democratic Party lines, was also an unpopular position among the electorate. The August election, therefore, resulted in a Democratic majority in the Illinois General Assembly, contrary to the national victory for the Whigs with the presidential election of William Henry Harrison. After the election, the legislature convened and sought to address the Whig-dominated Illinois Supreme Court. The Democrats authored a judiciary reform bill, which abolished the office of circuit judge and called for the election of five additional supreme court judges by the legislature. Meanwhile, Governor Carlin nominated Stephen A. Douglas as secretary of state, and the Illinois Senate confirmed the nomination. When it became obvious that the judiciary bill would pass, Field finally acquiesced and resigned his position. The bill passed the Illinois Senate by a large majority and passed the Illinois House with a slim majority (45-43). Every Whig voted against the bill, and the Council of Revision (composed of the governor and the justices of the supreme court) refused to consent to its passage. However, both the Senate and the House (this time 46-43) repassed the bill with the necessary constitutional majorities, and the judiciary bill became law on February 10, 1841. The Democrats had staved off defeat at the hands of the very body they were attempting to reform. Five days later, the legislature elected Democrats Thomas Ford, Sidney Breese, Walter B. Scates, Samuel H. Treat, and Stephen A. Douglas to the Illinois Supreme Court bench. Lincoln and thirty-four other Whig members issued a public protest to the passage of the bill, but their complaints were in vain. However, the court did not operate for long with nine justices, as the Illinois Constitutional Convention reduced the number of justices to three for the revision of the Illinois Constitution in 1848.

John Palmer, ed., The Bench and Bar of Illinois: Historical and Reminiscent, (Chicago: Lewis, 1899), 1:31; Charles Manfred Thompson, The Illinois Whigs before 1846 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1915), 79-88; Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973; reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 93-96; Field v. People ex re. McClernand, 2 Scam. 79 (3 Ill.) (1839); Spraggins v. Houghton, 2 Scam. 210 (3 Ill.) (1840); Journal of the House of Representatives of the Twelfth General Assembly of the State of Illinois (Springfield, IL: William Walters, public printer, 1840), 310-11, 358, 365-66; Ill. Const. of 1848, art. V, § 2; Norman H. Purple, comp., A Compilation of the Statutes of the State of Illinois (Chicago: Keen & Lee, 1856), 57; John W. McNulty, "Sidney Breese, the Illinois Circuit Judge, 1835-1841," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society62 (Summer 1969): 184-86; An Act Reorganizing the Judiciary of the State of Illinois.