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Willard Bartlett

Judge of the Supreme Court

Centurion, 1897–1925

Born 14 October 1846 in Uxbridge, Massachusetts

Died 17 January 1925 in New York (Brooklyn), New York

Buried Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York

Proposed by Henry E. Howland and George L. Rives

Elected 5 June 1897 at age fifty

Proposer of:

Century Memorial

How to select the judges who, under the bold American extension of the Anglo-Saxon conception of the judiciary, were not only to apply but often interpret and determine constitutional and statute law, has long been a crux of our political system. Webster described the American judicial system as the keystone of the arch, without which the American government “would, in all probability, have now been among things which are past.” When, however, the states insisted that their judges should be elected by the people, very grave question as to the efficacy and duration of the system arose in the mind of thoughtful observers. The experience of New York City during the later sixties, when the railway sharpers on the Erie directors’ board and the political thieves at City Hall maintained three corrupt elected judges to facilitate their schemes, was disheartening and ominous. It is not too much to say that, next to the sober sense of the American voter when once aroused to the nature of the situation, it is the character and career of men like Willard Bartlett that relieved the intelligent public mind from this misgiving.

Judge Bartlett served on the bench of New York State during 33 consecutive years. Elected originally, not because of political time-serving but largely because of his eloquent speech in nomination of another eminent member of the state judiciary, he held the scales with such dignity, wisdom and impartiality that he was repeatedly renominated for still higher judicial office with the unanimous assent of all political parties. A Democrat himself, he received after long service the undisputed endorsement by the Republican organization of his own party’s nomination of him for the highest place in the State judiciary. That such a thing should be possible, in the turmoil of prejudice, suspicion and hostility which we commonly associate with American political campaigns, is the explanation of that American political paradox, an honest and competent elective judiciary.

The judicial achievement of Judge Bartlett was supplemented both by genial human interest in the every-day affairs of life and by literary taste, for which his early life provided highly interesting background. Edward P. Mitchell’s delightful book of reminiscence of the old-time New York Sun recalls a period prior to 1875; at which time, he sets forth, that newspaper’s theatrical critic and assistant critic “were two young lawyers then in the forenoon of practice, under the firm name of Root & Bartlett.” The senior in the legal concern, Mitchell proceeds, “was the junior in the censorship of the drama. When the future chief judge of the Court of Appeals was busy with the doings of the more serious stage, the future senator and secretary of state sometimes attended to the lighter performances and in this division of labor, we may presume, such attractions of the time as the ‘Black Crook’ and the Lydia Thompson burlesque troop may have had the benefit of his unsurpassed powers of observation and analysis.”

Alexander Dana Noyes
1926 Century Association Yearbook