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By Malcolm Ebright
Kirby Benedict (1811-1874) was born in Kent, Connecticut and grew up near the first law school established in the American colonies, the Litchfield Law School. He did not attend Litchfield, whose register of students included many prominent lawyers to be. Instead, Benedict studied law under John Anthony Quitman in Natchez, Tennessee, who taught him the law, as well as French and Spanish. His knowledge of Spanish served Kirby Benedict well when he became a Federal judge in New Mexico.
At the age of twenty-one, Kirby Benedict met another young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. After his admission to the bar in Illinois, Benedict enjoyed a successful law practice in Decatur while developing his friendship with Lincoln, who practiced in nearby Springfield. Lincoln and Benedict rode circuit together in the Eighth Judicial District, which required them to visit the county seats of each of the fourteen counties in the district twice a year. The circuit took three months to complete on horseback or in horse and buggy. The Illinois lawyers complained about the heat and the other discomforts of travel, though this would be nothing (the average distance between courthouses was 30 miles), compared to the distances and discomforts Benedict would face in New Mexico, where travels would take him across the Jornada del Muerto (“journey of the dead man”) between Albuquerque and Las Cruces.
A newspaper account of a May 1850 court session in Urbana compared the personalities and legal abilities of Kirby Benedict and Abe Lincoln. Benedict was described thusly: “…having satisfied himself with the knowledge of the general principles of his profession, he is too impatient and fond of excitement to apply his energies to the acquisition of necessary legal details. Benedict has never been a deep thinker and, in his arguments, he depends almost entirely upon the resources of a rich and powerful imagination.” Lincoln, on the other hand was described as “gifted, with a mind deeply imbued by study. His style of reasoning is profound; his deductions logical and his investigations are acute. When he addresses the jury, there is no false glitter or sickly sentimentalism. His argument is bold, forcible, and convincing.” Though Lincoln was said to avoid rhetorical display for its own sake, Benedict was considered the best orator on the circuit. Lincoln’s well-argued and eloquent style is reflected in the speeches he made as President of the United States; Benedict’s more flowery prose style is reflected in his many opinions recorded in the first volumes of reports of New Mexico Supreme Court decisions.
When Stephen Watts Kearny set up a provisional government in New Mexico after the Army of the West’s conquest of the Mexican Territory in 1846, he appointed a three judge Supreme Court, with Joab Houghton as chief justice and Charles Beaubien and Antonio José Otero as associate judges. This system of three Supreme Court judges continued when New Mexico was formally organized as a territory in 1852. Because of a shortage of funds in State Government, the members of the Supreme Court served as District Court judges as well. Thus Supreme Court justices often ruled on appeals of decisions they themselves had written as District Court judges.
Kirby Benedict was appointed associate justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court in 1853, by President Franklin Pierce. Upon his arrival in Santa Fe, Benedict was assigned to the Third Judicial District, a huge area comprising the southern two-thirds of New Mexico from the Colorado River on the west to Texas on the east and a distance of 300 miles from North to South. In addition to a three week session of the Supreme Court in July, Judge Benedict was required to hold court twice a year in each of the four counties of his district: Bernalillo, Valencia, Socorro, and Doña Ana. This circuit included a long and perilous ride by horseback and horse and buggy from Albuquerque, where he was headquartered, to the county seats of each county: Tomé, Socorro, and Las Cruces (Albuquerque was the county seat of Bernalillo County). Judge Benedict was familiar with this practice from his days of circuit-riding with Abraham Lincoln in Illinois, but the hinterlands of Territorial New Mexico were vastly different from the relatively settled state of Illinois where he had practiced law.
W.W.H. Davis, the author of El Gringo (Davis traveled through New Mexico by stagecoach in 1853 and wrote about the trip and life in New Mexico in 1857), accompanied Judge Benedict on one of his first circuit rides from Albuquerque to Las Cruces in the spring of 1854. Benedict’s party reached Tomé and held court there for the required one week term. The party then started for Socorro, Benedict in the buggy and his companions on horseback. When they reached La Joya, the Rio Grande was running too swift and deep for the Judge’s buggy to cross, though the horseman were able to cross in a canoe while the horses swam alongside. They reached Socorro and held court there before traversing the Jornada del Muerto to reach Las Cruces. Crossing the Jornada del Muerto was too hot by day so the party, comprising the entire judiciary of Southern New Mexico, traveled by night and rested from 11:00 am to about 5:00 pm.
On reaching Las Cruces, Judge Benedict found three bands of Apaches camped near the court house to observe the proceedings involving the prosecution of men accused of murdering their Chief, Cusenas Azalas. The Apaches told Judge Benedict that they came in peace to see that justice was done. The outcome of the trial is not clear but this may have been Judge Benedict’s first case involving Native Americans. We don’t know if or how the Apache presence outside the courthouse in Las Cruces affected his decision, but Kirby Benedict seems to have been sympathetic to both Indian and Hispano rights in his written opinions as a judge. After stepping down from the bench, however, Kirby Benedict the lawyer did more to hurt the Pueblo Indian cause than he had helped it while he was on the bench.
Justice Benedict, only the fifth judge appointed to the court of the territorial government of New Mexico, soon developed a reputation as “the most bizarre of all New Mexico Territorial Supreme Court judges,” because of his activities off and sometimes on the bench. His legal opinions were generally well-reasoned and his record of attendance in court was better than his predecessors and colleagues, but he was known to drink to excess (sometimes while he was on the bench) and he had a passion for gambling. In 1858 President James Buchanan appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Mexico. In that same year, Benedict moved to Santa Fe, and bought a large house at the corner of Grant and Catron streets, near the current District Courthouse. He served as Chief Justice from 1858 to 1866 at a time when the law of New Mexico was in its formative stages.
Kirby Benedict had many enemies in the early days of the establishment of the Territory of New Mexico, a territory that was still a frontier community with many of the characteristics associated with the “wild West.” Violence was ever present. Apache, Navajo, Ute, Comanche and other tribes were concerned with the increased number of white settlers encroaching on their hunting grounds and disrupting their way of life. Indian attacks on wagon trains coming into Santa Fe on the Santa Fe Trail became a regular occurrence. Everyone, including judges and attorneys, carried guns and knives to defend themselves and to resolve disputes. Kirby Benedict had a wound from a Bowie knife in his right hand, a handicap from an unknown accident or altercation that made his handwriting difficult to decipher.
Two events at the beginning and end of Justice Benedict's career on the New Mexico Supreme Court reveal the complexity of relationships that existed below the surface in mid-nineteenth century New Mexico. In April of 1858 Benedict received an outraged letter from General John Garland about an unprovoked attack by a party of armed New Mexicans from Mesilla against a peaceful Indian camp at nearby Fort Thorn. In the attack, three Native American men, three women and a boy were killed. Soldiers under General Garland’s command captured all thirty-six men who had participated in the crime but General Garland worried that the thirty-six might be released or freed from jail before they were tried, since public opinion favored them over the Indians. Judge Benedict traveled to Socorro to examine the accused and commit them to trial. The result of the trial is not known, but in 1861, Judge Benedict wrote to his old friend President Lincoln the following: “I tried thirty-six men for murder upon the same indictment but I met no uncommon trouble and no resistance.” Judge Benedicts’ prompt measures made it clear to the Mesilla vigilantes that this was not a lawless community, even if the law had to travel all the way from Santa Fe.
The second event occurred after Benedict stepped down from the high court. It involved his successor Colonel John Slough. After a tepid victory at the Civil Battle of Valverde in 1862, confederate forces under General Henry Sibley briefly occupied Santa Fe. Kirby Benedict left Santa Fe for Las Vegas, just ahead of the confederate forces; the only time he missed holding a court session. The confederate forces were defeated at the Battle of Glorieta near Pecos and the man who would replace Benedict as Supreme Court Justice played a role in that battle. Slough barely escaped with his life when “his own men became so disgusted with him for keeping so far to the rear of the action that they turned a howitzer on him and opened fire.” The Battle of Glorieta was a turning point in the confederate invasion of New Mexico and ironically, Colonel Slough received some of the credit. President Lincoln named him military governor of Alexandria, Virginia and promoted him to brigadier general. Later, Slough was one of the pall bearers at Lincoln’s funeral and in March of 1866 was appointed to succeed Benedict as chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court. Slough was a hard working judge and because of his military background was able to work well with military commanders. Benedict on the other hand, had a rocky relationship with these commanders, including General James Henry Carleton.
Judge Benedict had become familiar with the civil law system that prevailed in New Mexico during the Spanish (1698-1821) and Mexican (1821-1846) Periods prior to American occupation and was sympathetic to the plight of Nuevo Mexicanos. Spanish and Mexican systems of law were supplanted by U.S. law with the invasion of the Southwest by the Army of the West in 1846. Judge Benedict faced many questions unique to the Southwest and its many cultures, including questions regarding land grants and water rights, issues that are still not completely settled. In the first water rights case in Territorial New Mexico, Benedict helped adjudicate a case between Acoma and Laguna Indian pueblos; a case that was unsettled for decades. The two pueblos compromised in a traditional water-sharing plan. Benedict also rendered the first land grant decision in Territorial New Mexico (Pino v. Hatch, 1855), at a time before the Surveyor General of New Mexico and the Court of Private Land Claims had established a body of land grant law. Benedict’s discussion of the effect of an 1823 land grant on the possessory rights of the parties in 1855 raised questions of the authority of Mexican officials in New Mexico to grant land and the effect of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo regarding those rights. Judge Benedict was an influential member of the commission charged with revising and codifying New Mexico's laws, a project completed in 1865 with the publication of Laws of New Mexico, 1864-1865.
As mentioned earlier, Kirby Benedict maintained a near perfect record of attendance at all sessions of court to which he was assigned, but he had a drinking problem. Because of this, his political enemies pressed charges against him, asking that he be removed from the bench. After reviewing the charges, President Lincoln reportedly said, "He may imbibe to excess, but Benedict drunk, knows more law than all the others on the bench in New Mexico sober. I shall not disturb him."
With the assassination of President Lincoln on 14 April 1865, Kirby Benedict's most powerful supporter was gone and he was removed from the bench in early February of 1866. After stepping down from the New Mexico Supreme Court, Kirby Benedict practiced law from January 1867 until 1871 and was involved in several important cases. U.S. v. Lucero, involved the encroachment by one Beniño Ortiz on Cochití Pueblo land. U.S. District Attorney Stephen B. Elkins, did not attempt to eject Ortiz from the Cochití land, but instead sought a one thousand dollar fine for the encroachment. Kirby Benedict represented Ortiz, claiming that the statute under which Elkins was proceeding did not apply to New Mexico Pueblos. Judge Slough, Benedict’s successor on the bench agreed with him, holding that the law did not apply to Pueblo Indians because they were not the “uncivilized Indians” whose lands the law meant to protect. “They are a peaceably, intelligent, industrious, honest and virtuous people. They are Indians only in features and complexion, and a few of their habits.” The Lucero decision held that non-Indians could in fact and in law encroach on Pueblo lands with impunity. This was a major setback for Pueblo Indian rights.
Kirby Benedict was a man of contradictions who tried conscientiously to perform the duties entrusted to a Supreme Court judge in the early Territorial Period but was hampered by a flawed system as well as his own personal failings. In 1874, well after he had stopped drinking, Kirby Benedict died as he was walking the streets of Santa Fe. He is remembered as New Mexico’s most colorful judge.
Hunt, Aurora. Kirby Benedict: Frontier Federal Judge. Glendale, California: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1961.
Poldervaart, Arie W. Black-Robed Justice. Santa Fe: Historical Society of New Mexico, 1948.
Sides, Hampton. Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West. New York: Doubleday, 2006.
Westphall, Victor. Thomas Catron and His Era. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1973.
De La O v. Acoma, 1 New Mexico Reports 226, 1857.
Pino v. Hatch, 1 New Mexico Reports 125 1855.
U.S. v. Lucero. 1 New Mexico Reports 422 1869.