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Biographical Sketch
Judge Alfred G. Otis
Atchison County, Kansas


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The following transcription is from a 750 page book titled "Genealogical and Biographical Record of North-Eastern Kansas, dated 1900.  These have been diligently transcribed and generously contributed by Penny R. Harrell, please give her a very big Thank You for her hard work!

Gold Bar

Judge Otis was also prominently identified with the business and railroad enterprise of northern Kansas, Atchison being then as now the commercial center for that section of the state.  In 1876 Judge Otis, though a prominent Democrat, was elected district judge of the second judicial district, then largely Republican, his majority over his opponent being several hundred.  He served his term of four years to the general satisfaction of the people and the bar, but declined a renomination. At the close of his term resolutions of esteem and respect were adopted by the bar of each county of the district and were at their request spread upon the records of the court.

At Atchison, the home of Judge Otis, the closing of his term was made an occasion of especial interest by the lawyers generally of the district. Among others, Judge Nathan Price one of his predecessors upon the bench, Hon. G. W. Glick, his former law partner and subsequently the governor of the state, Colonel A. S. Everest, a well known and noted attorney, Hon. R. P. Waggener, his former law student and Judge David Martin, who succeeded him upon the bench, took prominent part.

The following resolutions were unanimously adopted by the bar: "Whereas, the Hon. Alfred G. Otis, of the second judicial district of Kansas, who has so faithfully and ably served as judge of said court for the past four years, is now about to retire from the bench, and is about to adjourn this court for the last time, and "Whereas, it is in accordance with the sentiment of the bar here assembled, appreciating the high character and integrity which has marked his judicial labors, to give expression in an appropriate manner of the regard in which he is held by the members of the bar, therefore be it "Resolved, That it is with sincere regret that we are called upon to sever our official relations with one who has so justly and so ably performed all the duties of the high and honorable office of judge of this district, and who, in the administration of the judicial powers and duties imposed upon him, has, without exception, exhibited that through learning, careful research, clear and vigorous reasoning and integrity of purpose that always command the respect and admiration of the bar. "Resolved, That in the performance of the manifold and arduous duties which necessarily attach to a judicial office, his whole object and aim has seemed to be to administer the law as he found it, without fear, favor or partiality, seeking only to reach the ends of justice by a strict adherence to those fundamental principles of the law that govern and control all civil conduct. "Resolved, That during the four years of our official intercourse with Judge Otis, he has at all times shown a just appreciation of the proper relations between bench and bar, and we do hereby tender him our kindest and best wishes for his future welfare and prosperity. "Resolved, That these resolutions be spread upon the records of this court, and that copies be sent to each of the city papers for publication."

These were followed by various addresses from the members of the bar, and among them the Hon. B. P. Waggener made the following very happy address: "May it please your Honor: It affords great pleasure for me to publicly express my unqualified concurrence in the sentiments of the resolutions that have been presented to you by the members of the bar. "The circumstances surrounding your elevation from that bar, which you had so long honored to the bench of this district, were such as to impress upon your mind that you carried with you the respect and confidence of your fellow citizens, with whom and among whom for so long a time you had lived and mingled, and as you are now about to close your judicial career, I think I express the sentiments of not only each member of the bar, but of the citizens of the district, that you have in no manner betrayed the trust reposed in you by them, and that you will transfer the judicial ermine unstained and untainted to your successor in office.

"You, sir, can retire to the shades of private life with the satisfaction of knowing that your judicial integrity has never been questioned, or your honesty of purpose ever made an issue between parties litigant. "In our zeal for the cause of our clients we may have differed from you upon the interpretations of those rules of action so often invoked in furtherance of justice, yet we have uniformly accepted the result as the opinion of an unbiased, intelligent and impartial judge. "In thus giving expression to my sentiments upon this occasion I am actuated by a feeling to me more sacred than that feeling of respect which the lawyer has for the court. Whatever, sir, I am today, whatever success I have attained at the bar and in the practice of my profession, I attribute to an attempt to follow your precepts and emulate your example, and to the helping hand that you extended to me in my youth in the hour of adversity and misfortune. Without friends, without money, without education, you took me from the cold charities of the world and by kindness and the exhibition of the impulses of a generous heart you planted in my very existence an ambition to achieve success, and by words of encouragement inspired me with hope that although not reared in the lap of luxury I might overcome the obstacles of life and gather richer sheaves in the great field of human actions before me than had blessed my labors in early life; and when promoted to the bench I felt that those qualities of heart and mind that adorned your private life and commanded for you the admiration of your neighbors and fellow citizens would pre-eminently characterize your administration of justice in the courts of the several counties of this judicial district; and while we regret your retirement from the bench we congratulate ourselves upon the fact that your successor in office is a gentleman of great moral worth and intellectual culture, and one whom we all know possesses in an eminent degree that enlarged experience and those qualifications so necessary and requisite to the purity and dignity of the judiciary."

This followed by many other addresses and then by a response from Judge Otis, in which, after thanking the bar for their kind words, he discussed at some length and very frankly the defects in the legal procedure of the state which had come under his notice during his term of office, and suggested various remedies therefor, many of which were adopted by the legislature at its next session shortly thereafter.

Judge David Martin, his successor, then took the oath of office, administered by Judge Otis, and, on being formally introduced to the bar, made the following response: "May it please the court and the gentleman of the bar: It is not meet that he who girdeth on the harness of a public servant should himself boast of what he expects to accomplish.  But he that putteth off may well speak of what he has actually done, and his words of advice and counsel to his associates will be treasured up and pondered well by the wise and thoughtful. "Our learned and honored friend and brother has crowned a long, active and highly successful professional career with four years of hard judicial labor to the general acceptance and satisfaction of the bar and the people of the second judicial district.

His extensive research, profound learning and great experience as a lawyer eminently fitted him for the arduous and responsible duties of the judgeship. We have had the benefit of his judicial labors and have now listened to his parting words of advice and counsel from the bench, in which I, for one, have been greatly interested, for they have been as "apples of gold in pictures of silver." There may well be general regret of his parting, for he who is to come in the room of Judge Otis cannot reasonably hope for the same measure of success. I trust, however, that he may not prove unworthy of the confidence and respect of the people of the district who have called him to the place by a unanimous vote, and that when his career as a judge is ended he may also merit the commendation which we now so fittingly bestow upon Judge Otis: "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."

The following were the comments of the leading city papers. In the Atchison Daily Champion, of January 7, 1881, was this article: " The respect and confidence in which Judge Otis is held by the members of the profession is testified to by the complimentary resolutions adopted by the bar of this county yesterday and by the legal fraternities of other counties in the district during the past few weeks. He has made an able, impartial judge and his thorough integrity has never been questioned.

"The Judge made the bar meeting yesterday the occasion for some very plain talk on the methods of our jurisprudence and the defects of our laws.  The criticisms he makes and the reforms he urges have been suggested by a long and valuable experience as a practicing attorney and a judicial officer and will commend themselves to the approval of all intelligent people.  We are glad Judge Otis has embraced this opportunity to give the public the benefit of his observation and experience in the practical workings of our judicial system.  If any one, not of the legal guild, had said what he does, his opinions would have been pooh-poohed by the legal fraternity as the thoughtless vaporings of a busybody who did not know anything whatever about that great science, the law.

Coming from a lawyer of high repute, and a judge of conceded honesty and ability, these criticisms cannot be ignored by the profession and will be gladly approved by the people. "There is no question of the fact that there is growing up in the public mind a profound distrust of our judicial system as a means of righting wrongs and dispensing equal and exact justice.

The laws of Kansas appear to have been especially devised, in some parts, to protect criminals, to prevent the administration of justice, to promote vexatious and expensive delays and to furnish steady business for the lawyers.  Rich and poor suffer alike from these intolerable methods and only criminals and those notoriously in the wrong are benefited by them.  A premium is put upon ignorance and general depravity in the jury box, civil causes drag their slow length along through weary and anxious years, while the costs increase and multiply until a final decision is inevitable ruin to both parties litigant; unscrupulous lawyers learn to depend for success upon artifice and fraud and chicanery, rather than upon legal learning and ability; the vilest criminals go unwhipped of justice through the intervention of cobweb technicalities that should never be permitted to deface and disgrace the operation of a judicial system, and, as the natural sequence of such resulting evils, the public mind, which ought to be inspired with a high respect for courts, regards them with almost universal distrust, if not with absolute abhorrence.

"Judge Otis frankly acknowledges all this, cites special causes why the public ought to regard our system of jurisprudence with suspicion and points out changes and reforms, by means of which the law can be restored to the high place it ought to occupy in a civilized and intelligent commonwealth. His suggestions are not only wise, but timely.  The legislature is soon to assemble and it ought to be able to correct some of the evils complained of by intelligent legislation.  The others must be corrected by the firm action of our judicial officers, who ought to be assisted in any efforts they may make to this end by all the reputable and honorable members of the legal fraternity."

The Atchison Patriot, of January 7, 1881, after sketching the proceedings at length, closed as follows: "In conclusion, the Patriot would add its mite to the kindly words that were addressed to Judge Otis this morning. A grave and dignified judge and able and skillful jurist, well versed in the law, familiar with the practice, scrutinizingly just in all things, he has been a judge whose record will long be pointed to as the bright example of an honest, upright judge, against whose untarnished name there stands not one breath of suspicion, save that of an honored and trusted official."

Among others the following letters were received, commenting upon the address: State of Kansas, Senate Chamber, Topeka, Kansas, January 17, 1881.

Judge Otis, Dear Sir: I have read with great pleasure your address delivered to the bar in Atchison.  I am satisfied that most of your suggestions will become established law.  I thank you for the pleasure and perusal of your address has given me. Respectfully, E. A. Ware.

Hon. T. M. Cooley, judge of the supreme court of the state of Michigan and professor of law at the Michigan University wrote the following letter: Ann Arbor, February 2, 1881. Hon. A. G. Otis, My Dear Sir: I have read with much pleasure your address on legal reform, made on laying down your robes of judicial office.  In the main I concur in what you sway and regret that your views do not generally prevail.  The time has come, I think, when unanimity should not be demanded in the verdict of juries.  There has never been much good reason for requiring it; jurors have been suffered to act freely, and it is now counted upon as likely to afford immunity to wrong doing in such cases as public opinion naturally divides upon.  There is less reason for requiring jurors to agree than for making the same demand upon judges, for judges are presumably more fitted by their training to draw the proper conclusions from the evidence, and they have better opportunities for examining it with deliberation and care.

I also agree that your statutes of 1859, respecting the disqualifications of jurors, is a great improvement on the common law, as it is generally administered. We have a similar statute in this state, but we have held independent of the statutes that the rule would be substantially the same. Many other things in your address give me pleasure, but I have not time to notice them.  Wishing you every happiness in your retirement, I am Very truly yours, T. M. Cooley."

Hon. John F. Dillon, formerly United States circuit judge for the seventh judicial district which included Kansas, made the following response: 716 Madison Avenue, New York, February 4, 1881.  My Dear Judge: I must give you my thanks for a printed copy of the proceedings of the bar on your retirement. It gave me sincere pleasure to read it.  I personally knew almost every person who spoke and it brought "the light of other days around me."  It must have been a great satisfaction to you and your family and friends to have had such an impressive testimonial to the worth of your services and the high esteem in which you are held by those who have known you longest and best.

I was especially interested in your practical suggestions for improving and amending the law and its administration.  Some of your views ought to be adopted by the legislature and I hope they will be.  It too often happens that matters that most need attention fail to get it.  I have not time now to enter into the subject further than to say that no one more fully appreciates the value of your observations than I do, and I agree in almost all you say in your address and in your letter.  I trust you will enjoy your well earned leisure. For myself I do not regret my own retirement from the bench; but leisure still eludes me, for I find myself about the busiest man I have met with in this busy city.  With my best wishes for your future, I am as ever, Very truly yours, John F. Dillon. "Hon. A. G. Otis."

The following comment was made by the New York Churchman: "Legal reform" is the title of the address delivered by Judge A. G. Otis, of Atchison, Kansas, on the occasion of his retirement from the bench.  It is largely devoted to reforms which have only a local interest, but parts of it are of general concern to all litigants and to their counsel as well.  It is plain and practical and is eloquent with the logic of facts.

The judge did not think it necessary to put on his gloves in handling many of the evils that have grown up around the courts of law in Kansas and elsewhere, and we are sure his words will have weight in bringing about their removal.  He discusses the jury system with great power and sets forth its folly in requiring the absolute unanimity of twelve men, and seems to think, if it is to be continued, we shall have to go back to the time of Blackstone, when juries were compelled to agree, and who says, if they do not, 'the judges are not bound to wait for them, but may carry them around the circuit, from town to town, in a cart.'

Judge Otis would have the infallibility of the twelfth man entirely removed.  The selection of jurors, too, he thinks, may be modified greatly to the advantage of all parties, and that impressions, opinions and belief  about current events should no longer disqualify a juryman.  We need in our juries intelligence and not ignorance. We were especially interested in that part of the Judge's address which speaks of the law's interminable delays.  He tells of one case, involving the title to some land, which was continued in the courts until it outlived all the parties in interest and the professional life of all who were engaged in it, and was finally ended by an almost arbitrary act of judicial power!

The title to a pig was contested until the costs run up to seven hundred dollars, and a similar case of a calf went from court to court until, after multiplying costs, it was finally settled by the attorneys themselves!  These delays, the Judge well says, make inequality in the laws and the right of appeal needs to be further restricted and the bill of costs limited by positive enactment.  We are glad to hear such sentiments accompanied by practical suggestions from the bench.  Law is itself an evil and should be freed, as much as may be, from the evils that have grown up around it."

The following communication was also written by one of the sovereigns of Kansas to the Topeka Commonwealth: Law and Judiciary Reform - McPherson, Kansas, January 25.  To the Editor of the Commonwealth: I am so forcibly impressed with the addresses of Colonel A. S. Everest and Judge A. G. Otis, which were recently published in your paper, that I can scarcely forbear saying something about them.  Indeed, they are such remarkable illustrations of the progressive genius of man as to deserve more than a passing glance.  They do not call for a sudden and startling revolution in moral and legal ethics, but they certainly do suggest some very wholesome and wise reformatory changes in our laws in the civil code and in the judiciary of the state.

It is needless for me to review their addresses in detail or at length, but I must commend them to the careful and considerate attention of the legislature, particularly to the younger and less experienced members, to the 'conservatives' and to that class of men whose fervent zeal for 'retrenchment and reform' lead them into the ridiculous pastime of pursuing shadows and leaving the substance of decay.  Perhaps Colonel Everest and Judge Otis did not intentionally deliver and publish their significant speeches for the edification of the legislature; undoubtedly the did not, for their speeches are well calculated for the enlightenment of the common people as for those 'old Romans' who wrap their togas about them and wax warm in parliamentary conflicts!

But there is a happy coincidence in the delivery of these addresses and the session of that august assembly.  Certainly the people should not have cause for reproving their representatives, lest they reprove themselves. But I do not intend any reflection upon that body, for, as a whole, it is good; it has some bright and able minds, and yet all of them will do well to listen to the words of men whose experience and training renders them capable of speaking as with authority in the important concerns of civil society, the laws and the courts and the machinery of justice.

Indeed, upon reading the able addresses referred to, one wonders if the scenes and influences of that high court of chancery of our old mother country, and of which Dickens wrote in such splendid strains of honest indignation, will be repeated on American soil, in Kansas and over Kansas homes!  Look upon your little ones at home; think of Jarndyce and Jarndyce; reflect upon the suggestions of Judge Otis and nerve yourself for the change that must come!

If the present legislature will commence the inauguration of a new era of jurisprudence, posterity will applaud their acts.  Of course, these things require time and calm deliberation and wise counsel, rather than excited and hostile debate.  But they must be debated and the time must not flag too much. I commend those addresses to the press of the state and hope that every newspaper will publish them, and that they will reach and be read in every office and at every fireside, for by those signs the people shall go peacefully over the ruffled seas of life, finding plenty of quiet harbors wherein they can moor their ships for rest and enjoy the blessings they have heaped upon themselves."

After his retirement from the bench Judge Otis took an active part in the management of the Atchison Savings Bank, then one of the leading banks of the city, and of which he had long been president. This, with the care of his own private business, engrossed for some years his time and attention.  He was, however, for six years a regent of the University of Kansas and took an active part in its control.

At the dedication of Snow Hall, November 16, 1887, the following is an outline of his address: Snow Hall Dedicated - Interesting exercises at the Kansas State University.  Judge Otis, chairman of the building committee of the board of regents, delivers an exhaustive review of the institution's past. Remarks by Chancellor Lippincott and Professor Snow and Governor Martin History of the new structure. Lawrence, Kansas, November 16.

This has been a red letter day in the history of the State University, the hall of natural history, recently completed, being formally turned over to the university and dedicated to the purposes for which it was constructed.  At ten o'clock this morning a large audience, composing state officials and members of the legislature, the board of regents and the university faculty, invited guests from different parts of the state and from Lawrence, students and citizens, gathered in the spacious hall of the main university building and the meeting was called to order by Chancellor Lippincott, who presided.

The exercises were opened by prayer by the Rev. Dr. Post, of Leavenworth, in which the university, its officers and students and the purpose for which the assembly had gathered were suitably commemorated.  The chancellor, in a few well chosen words, introduced the Hon. A. G. Otis, of Atchison, the chairman of the building committee of the board of regents.  In a very graceful speech he reviewed the advances which had been made in the work in the past four years, during which the present board had been in office.

The services of the day had a peculiar value to the board of regents.  The building they were about to dedicate was the evidence of the continued confidence of the people in the administration of the university and in the work it had undertaken to accomplish.  Making A University - "Four years ago," the Judge continued, "the board, in reviewing the history of the institution, had determined that if the state meant to endow a mere preparatory school or college in the ordinary sense it had expended far too much; if a university in the fullest and best sense of the term, far too little.  But it was clearly manifested that nothing less than a university in the fullest sense of the term had been intended, and they had resolutely set themselves to the work which the founders had planned, to make the University of Kansas an educational center of the west, like those of Ann Arbor and Wisconsin for the north and northwest.

The people of the state have, through their legislatures, cheerfully responded to the call.  In 1883 the chemistry building had been provided and fully equipped for the pursuit of that important branch of science.  Next the law department had been endowed and under the charge of an able jurist gave opportunities for young men preparing for the bar quite equal to those they could find even at long distances from their homes.

Then the department of pharmacy had been established under the care of an eminent and distinguished professor and cordially adopted and provided for by the state.  And now the department of natural history, which has been from the beginning the special care of the eminent professor whose honored name it was to bear, was to receive the beautiful and spacious structure which has been prepared for displaying its cabinets and the carrying out of its works." 

Continuing the Good Work - "The future of the institution was," the speaker said, "assured yet there would be no relaxation in their efforts to carry on and complete the work."  He referred to the plans for the future and made special allusion to the additional facilities for the comfort and convenience of the lady students.  The university had always recognized their right to an equal share with their brothers to all the privileges of a state education, and was now considering plans by which they could more readily and widely avail themselves of its advantages.

A residence for the chancellor on the university grounds was also needed, in order that he might give his personal and constant supervision to the work and property under his charge.  The speech of the Judge was frequently interrupted by applause, and he was roundly cheered as he closed with an eloquent reference to the cause in which they were engaged.

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Last update: Wednesday, January 11, 2006 00:05:03

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