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John H. Burford. A large and benignant influence has been exerted by Judge Burford in connection with the development and progress of the State of Oklahoma, to which he has given distinguished service, not only as a lawyer and jurist, but also as a legislator and as a citizen of broad views and vigorous public spirit. He served for ten years as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma Territory, and as such administered the oath to the members of the constitutional convention, which framed the constitution, the adoption of which gained for Oklahoma admission into the Union as a state. To him is ascribed leadership in the movement that gained to the twin territories admission as a sovereign state. He was the first president of the Oklahoma City Commercial Club and as such issued the call which resulted in the first joint statehood convention held by the two territories. He represented the Twelfth Senatorial District in the Oklahoma Legislature during the Fourth and Fifth General Assemblies. The judge is essentially one of the distinguished members of the Oklahoma bar, is consistently to be designated as a pioneer citizen, and his character and services have given him inviolable place in the confidence and esteem of the people of this vigorous young commonwealth.
Judge Burford was born in Parke County, Indiana, on the 29th of February, 1852, and is a son of Rev. James Burford, who was a native of Indiana, and a descendant of Elijah Hastings Burford, of English, Scotch and Welsh ancestry, who emigrated from Oxfordshire County, England, and settled in Amherst County, Virginia, in August, 1713. This family gave to the nation a gallant patriot soldier in the War of the Revolution. Rev. James Burford was a prominent member of the clergy of the Baptist Church in Indiana, where he held various pastoral charges and where he continued to reside until his death. Judge Burford’s great grandfather, Daniel Burford. was a pioneer settler of Fort Harrod, Mercer County, Kentucky, where he reared a large family, developed a large landed estate and was prominent in the civic and material progress of the community.
Like many other able representatives of the legal profession, Judge Burford found the days of his childhood and youth compassed by the conditions and influences of the farm, and his early education was acquired in the schools of his native state. In 1874, he was graduated in the University of Indiana, with the degree of Bachelor of Laws, and thereafter he took effective post graduate law courses, besides having been for a time a student and assistant in the law offices of Judge D. V. Burns, of Indianapolis. From the capitol city of Indiana, he removed to Crawfordsville, the judicial center of Montgomery County that state, where he initiated his independent career as a lawyer and where he became an intimate friend of the distinguished soldier and author, Gen. Lew Wallace, and also of the brilliant Indiana novelist, Maurice Thompson.
At Crawfordsville, Judge Burford soon gained professional prestige and success, and there he served for two terms as prosecuting attorney of the Twenty-second Judicial Circuit of the state. He early became active in the affairs of the republican party in his native commonwealth, and as a member of its state central committee in 1888, was a vigorous and effective champion of Gen. Benjamin Harrison in the latter’s campaign for the presidency of the United States, he having taken a loyal part in effecting the nomination and election of his distinguished and honored fellow Hoosier.
In 1890, Judge Burford came to Oklahoma Territory, and soon afterwards he was appointed, by Governor George W. Steele, the first Probate judge of Beaver County, in the region formerly designated as “ No Man’s Land.” His incumbency of this office continued two days, at the expiration of which he resigned and located in Oklahoma City, where shortly afterwards he assumed the office of Register of the United States Land Office, a position to which he was appointed by President Harrison. Of this post he continued the incumbent until March, 1892, when he was appointed by President Harrison associate justice of the Supreme Court, to succeed Hon. Abram J. Seay, who had resigned to accept appointment to the office of governor of the territory, as successor of Governor Steele, who had resigned. As an associate justice of the Supreme Court, Judge Burford was assigned to the Second District, which embraced the western part of the territory, and he accordingly removed to El Reno, in order to reside within the judicial district for which he was appointed. He continued his services on the Supreme bench for a period of four years and four months, three years of which were under President Cleveland. He discharged the duties of this high position with such ability and efficiency, that he gained the friendship and support of Attorney General Judson Harmon, and President Cleveland over the protest of some partisan democrats, permitted Judge Burford to serve for the full term for which he was appointed. He was succeeded by Hon. John C. Tarsney, of Kansas City, and then resumed the active practice of his profession, with residence and office in El Reno.
On the 16th of February, 1898, Judge Burford was appointed by President McKinley, to the distinguished office of chief justice of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma Territory, and was reappointed in 1902, and again in 1906 by President Roosevelt, so that he continued in tenure of this important judicial office until the two territories were combined and admitted to statehood on the 16th day of November, 1907. The judge had much influence in formulating and directing the territorial system of jurisprudence which still prevails in the state, and manifested the true judicial qualities, as well as a broad and comprehensive knowledge of law and precedent. While serving as chief justice he published thirteen volumes of Supreme Court reports, and as chairman of the board of trustees of the Territorial Library, he effected the elimination of an indebtedness of $5,000 against the library, besides increasing its collection to the notable aggregate of 15,000 volumes. One of his last official acts on the bench was in rendering the noted decision in a case in which citizens of Greer County sought to prevent the state constitutional convention from dividing that historical county or from incorporating any of its territory into other counties. The questions involved were presented by a number of the ablest lawyers in the constitutional convention on one side, and by a number of eminent lawyers on the other. In this case, Judge Burford announced the principle afterwards affirmed by the Supreme Court, that the constitutional convention was a body possessed of the highest legislative functions in the exercise of which the courts had no power or jurisdiction to interfere. Judge Burford was a member of the commission designated under the enabling act to divide the two territories into districts for the election of delegates to the constitutional convention, and was a member also of the canvassing board that declared the result of the vote on the adoption of the state constitution.
Upon the assumption of the office of chief justice of the Territorial Supreme Court, Judge Burford established his residence in the City of Guthrie, the territorial capital, and there he for several years maintained his home. His law business is one of broad scope and importance and he has appeared in connection with many of the most celebrated cases presented in the various courts of Oklahoma during the state regime. He represented the citizens of Guthrie throughout all the legal proceedings in the courts of the state and the Supreme Court of the United States involving the removal and relocation of the state capital. He has continued a leader in the councils of the republican party in the state and in 1914 was made its unanimous nominee for United States senator, but was defeated in the general election at the polls, as was the entire republican ticket. In the meanwhile, in 1912, he was elected representative of the Twelfth District in the State Senate for the term of four years. He thus served during the Fourth and Fifth Legislative Assemblies and was a commanding figure in the work and deliberations of the upper house. In the Fourth Legislature the judge was chairman of the committee on Federal relations, and a member also of judiciary committee No. 1, as well as of the committees on banks and banking, and revenue and taxation. In this session he was the author of a bill abolishing the county high school of Logan County; a bill abolishing the Superior Court of the same county, and a bill providing the system by which vacancies in the Legislature should be filled. He was elected on a platform pledging him to champion vigorously the cause of Guthrie in its efforts to become again the state capital, but his earnest efforts were inadequate to overcome the strong opposition put forth in behalf of Oklahoma City.
In the Fifth Legislature Judge Burford was chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs and held membership also on the committees of ways and means, legal advisory, revenue and taxation, public service corporations, banks and banking, Federal relations, constitution and constitutional amendments, mines and manufacturing, legislative and judicial apportionment and commerce and labor. He was specially influential in the furtherance of measures to conserve greater economy in the administration of the various departments of .government of the state, in abolishing a number of offices, in promoting more efficient public service, and in his efforts to divorce the judicial system of the state from politics. He introduced a bill requiring that judges should be elected on a separate ballot from that of other officials, and also a bill defining the status of the bank guaranty fund and providing for the administration of this fund. High-minded civic loyalty, great circumspection and thorough familiarity with constitutional law and with governmental policies, made Judge Burford one of the most valuable of legislators, and his record in the Senate, as well as on the bench has become an integral and important part of the history of Oklahoma, a state which he has honored and which has in turn conferred upon him high honors. At the expiration of the regular session of the Fifth Legislative Assembly in March, 1915, Judge Burford resigned his position as state senator for Logan County, and took up his residence in Oklahoma City, where he is actively engaged in the practice of his profession as senior member of the firm of Burford, Robertson & Hoffman.
In the City of Indianapolis, Indiana, on St. Valentine’s day in the centennial year. February 14, 1876, was solemnized the marriage of Judge Burford to Miss Mary A. Cheek, to whom have been born one son, Frank Braden. who is now referee in bankruptcy for the Western Federal District of Oklahoma, and who is engaged in the practice of law at Guthrie. He was graduated in the Guthrie High School, received the degree of Bachelor of Arts from the University of Kansas, and completed thereafter a course in the law department of the historic old University of Virginia at Charlottesville, from which he received the degree of Bachelor of Laws.
While Judge Burford has always taken an interest in political affairs, and has been looked to by republicans as one or the leaders, he has never been a partisan and abhors the title of politician. He has been honored by the members of his profession as president of the State Bar Association and delegate to the American Bar Association, and is a member of the Commercial Law league. He has been loyal to the profession and has persistently been active in endeavors to raise the standard of professional ethics. He has at all times been the champion of the courts, and has openly denounced any attacks upon the integrity or good faith of the judiciary.
One of Judge Burford’s chief characteristics has been his pronounced interest in the progress and success of young men, and especially young lawyers, many of whom he has assisted and specially befriended.