Hon. James Haskins Sutherlin. When the Thirty-second Senatorial District sent James H. Sutherlin of Wagoner to the Senate in 1912, it gave to the Legislature the services of one of the most competent and scholarly lawyers of the state and a man of long experience in public life in Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Senator Sutherlin has been justly called one of the dynamic citizens of Oklahoma, and a man of light and leading in the Senate. He is a man of many parts, a student, a thinker, and the powers of an original mind have not only served him well in solving the intricate problems of legal practice, but also in helping to formulate the well-balanced program of legislation for the new state.
The record of his individual services in the State Senate during the past four years will furnish instructive material to the historian of the future who endeavors to understand and interpret the political life of Oklahoma during the first ten years of statehood.
In the fourth Legislature Senator Sutherlin was chairman of Judiciary Committee No. 1. He was author during that Legislature of an important measure that lowered tax levies, and took a conspicuous part in legislation affecting oil and gas, the production of which is an important industry in his part of the state. He also took a leading part in favor of the passage of legislation establishing the capital at Oklahoma City and for building the same. Ho attempted the passage of a resolution reorganizing the judiciary of Oklahoma, and that was the measure to which he gave his particular attention during the session of the Fifth Legislature. In the fifth session he was also a leader of measures designed to make the production of oil and gas more profitable, particularly with reference to conservation, production and transportation. He was one of the joint authors of the oil conservation bill which became a law. He also rendered active assistance in the passage of the home-ownership measure presented by Senator Campbell Russell. In the Fifth Legislature he was chairman of the Committee on Constitution and Constitutional Amendments, and a member of committees on Appropriations, Ways and Means, Privileges and Elections, Education, Public Buildings, Oil and Gas, State and County Affairs, and Legislative and Judicial Apportionment. In his legislation work he has taken an active part in maintaining the liberal policies of the Oklahoma constitution.
Much attention has been attracted over the state to Senator Sutherlin’s proposed constitutional amendment affecting the judiciary, to which he gave much thought, study and labor. It was introduced by him in the Fifth Legislature. The proposed bill has been highly commended as a measure which would serve to simplify and correlate the various judicial powers vested in the state, and a brief digest of the proposed bill is worthy of record in this sketch.
As introduced during the session in the Fifth Legislature his measure provided that the judicial power of the state should be vested “in the senate, sitting as a court of impeachment, a supreme court, courts of appeals, district courts, courts of justices of the peace and municipal courts” and provided that the Legislature might abolish the present Criminal Court of Appeals. All other courts, except the Senate, as a court, were made inferior to the Supreme Court, and that court was given general supervisory jurisdiction over all courts.
The court system of the state at the time of the proposal of this amendment to the constitution consisted of a Supreme Court, commissioners to the Supreme Court sitting in divisions of three each in an advisory capacity to the Supreme Court and whose written opinions were usually adopted in toto by the Supreme Court; a Criminal Court of Appeals (a statutory court), district courts, a County Court in each county and justices of the peace. The main changes proposed in this amendment sought to abolish the commission to the Supreme Court and also to abolish the County Courts and establish instead one Supreme Court composed of a chief justice to be elected by the state at large and four associate justices to be elected from districts; Courts of Appeals to sit throughout the state; District Courts (one court of original jurisdiction); and courts of justices of the peace. The amendment provided that all appeals should be directly from the District Court to either the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals.
The Supreme Court should have jurisdiction on appeal only in cases where the amount involved exceeded $3,000, and in all extraordinary matters, such as suits involving taxation or the fiscal policy, divorces, alimony and constitutional questions regardless of the amount involved.
The Court of Appeals should have jurisdiction on appeal only from the District Court in all ordinary civil or probate matters where the amount involved was less than $3,000 and more than $100. The District Court should have original jurisdiction of all matters, probate and civil, where the amount involved exceeded $100, and appellate jurisdiction from the courts of justices of the peace where the amount involved exceeded $20.
There should be no appeal from the Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court, but the Court of Appeals should have the right to certify any case or any question to the Supreme Court for its decision, or the Supreme Court should have the right on its own motion under its general supervisory control to order the Court of Appeals to certify any case or any question to it for its decision, and any litigant was given his remedy to apply to the Supreme Court or any judge thereof for writ of review or certiorari to the Court of Appeals, and in the event such writ was issued by the Supreme Court or any judge thereof, such case should be certified by the Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court and there stand for hearing the same as if originally appealed to the Supreme Court.
The state was divided into three Court of Appeals Districts, each district to elect three judges of such court to sit together as such Court of Appeals in such district, in the principal cities and towns of said district. The clerk of the District Court of the county wherein the Court of Appeals sat should be ex-officio clerk of such Court of Appeals and the sheriff of such county should attend such court. All appeals to the Court of Appeals should be on the original papers from the District Court and no printed records or briefs required, and the cost of appeal in the Court of Appeals should not exceed $5. The Court of Appeals was required to render short, concise, written opinions “referring to the law by virtue of which every judgment is. rendered and adducing the reasons on which their judgment is founded,” but such opinions should not be published.
The object and purpose of these changes was to limit the Supreme Court to a small number of judges and thus strengthen and make more uniform the jurisprudence of the state, eliminate opportunity for the jurisprudence of the state to become conflicting, and to provide an easy, inexpensive and expeditious remedy in all ordinary matters of litigation, the decision of which should be only the law of that case.
It provided that the Criminal Court of Appeals might be abolished by the Legislature and appellate jurisdiction in such event conferred by the Legislature on the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals or both, and limited criminal appeals from the District Court to cases where the punishment actually imposed was a fine of $200 or over or imprisonment in the county jail of more than sixty days.
Other important changes provided were: Abolishment of trial by jury in civil cases in justice of the peace courts; in the District Court, “in all civil cases where the cause of action is not based upon unliquidated damages, a trial by jury shall be presumed to be waived unless specially asked for in writing by a party to said cause at least ten days prior to the term at which said cause shall stand for trial, and the Legislature shall provide for the payment by any party thereto of jury fees in all civil cases tried by jury based upon causes of action for liquidated damages;” the reduction of the number of jurors to try cases; and conferring power upon Appellate Courts to render judgment in cases on appeal without remanding for new trial.
Justices of the peace were given original jurisdiction in all civil cases where- the amount involved did not exceed $100, except in actions for libel and slander, probate matters, or when the estate of a decedent is a defendant, or when the state, county or any municipality or other political corporation is a party, or when the title to real estate is involved, and in all misdemeanor criminal cases in which the punishment does not exceed a fine of $100 or imprisonment exceeding thirty days, and as committing magistrates in all felony cases.
The proposed amendment contained forty-three sections, worked out with great particularity to suit the conditions existing in the state, and completely reconstructing the judicial system and greatly simplifying it.
Senator Sutherlin by his own career has added some distinction to an honored family name. James Haskins Sutherlin was born in Mansfield, Louisiana, October 25, 1870, a son of John H. and Sarah (Keener) Sutherlin, being the youngest of eleven children. The Sutherlin family were early settlers in the region of Danville, Virginia, and the senator’s grandfather was a captain in the War of 1812. The father, a native of Virginia, when a mere lad emigrated to the State of Alabama where, in Autauga County he married Sarah Keener, a daughter of German parents. A few years later in the early ’50s he and his young wife, accompanied by wagon train and eighteen slaves, which had been the gift of the bride’s father, set out across country from Alabama for Texas. They stopped in a then wild but fertile section of Northwestern Louisiana, then being settled, and never completed the journey to Texas. In that region, undergoing the hardships incident to pioneering, they established a home where they reared their family and where the father eventually became an extensive land owner, his large plantation being still intact.
Senator Sutherlin has two brothers and one sister living. One of them is Judge Edgar W. Sutherlin of Shreveport, Louisiana, who was for eight years a member of the Court of Appeals of Louisiana and one of the leading lawyers of the state. The other brother is Dr. William K. Sutherlin, also of Shreveport, head of a large private sanitarium there and recognized as one of the leading surgeons of the state, and who in the course of his preparation spent five years as a student in Berlin and Paris, graduating in medicine from the Frederick William University at Berlin. The sister is Mrs. G. A. White of Louisiana.
When ten years of age Senator Sutherlin lost his mother and at twelve his father. He was reared in the home of his elder brother Judge Sutherlin, and under the direction, care and tutelage of both brothers, judge and doctor. At twelve years of age he was placed in a French family in South Louisiana for the purpose of learning the French language, where he remained two years. At fifteen he entered Thatcher’s Institute, a military college of respectable standing, at Shreveport, where he remained for four years and from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1889, then being senior captain of the corps of cadets and as valedictorian of his class.
In 1889 he entered the classical department of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville and was graduated from that institution in 1892 with a B. A. degree. He was subsequently admitted to the bar, and after a brief practice in Mansfield, in 1894, removed to Santa Fe, New Mexico. During his four years’ residence in New Mexico he was city attorney of the City of Santa Fe and also master in chancery in the United States Court, and United States commissioner under Judge N. B. Laughlin, then associate justice of the Supremo Court of the Territory of New Mexico. In 1898 he returned to Louisiana, practiced law there ten years, and since 1908 has been a resident of Wagoner, Oklahoma.
Senator Sutherlin was married in 1894 at Mansfield, Louisiana, to Irene Elam, daughter of Joseph B. Elam, who was a member of the Secession Convention of the State of Louisiana, speaker of the House of Representatives of the Louisiana Legislature during the Civil war, and for a number of years represented the Fourth Louisiana District in Congress. Mr. Sutherlin has a family of four children: Mary E. and Sarah K., who are graduates of the Wagoner High School, Irene and Edgar W.
Senator Sutherlin is a member of the Episcopal Church and belongs to the Wagoner County and Oklahoma Bar associations. He has been one of the leading spirits of his home town in its growth during the last few years. As a member of the Board of Freeholders elected to draft a charter for the city under the commission form, he largely drew the charter, which is one of the most modern of commission form documents. When the charter was adopted he declined to become a candidate for the first mayor under the new form of government, when his election was practically assured without opposition.