Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, February 26, 2009


Page 15



L.A. Groff Serves as Judge, Heads Federal Agency




While it was James Brown Scott who was the first dean of the law school that would soon be hitched with the University of Southern California, it was Lewis A. Groff who would serve as the first dean of the school after the alliance with USC was forged in 1900.

Both Groff and Scott were, in mid-1896, among the original tenants of the Wilcox Building at Second and Spring Streets, where this newspaper has its offices.

Groff, 54 when he moved into our building, had already achieved much. He had been a state court judge, a federal prosecutor, and the head of federal agency.

This run-down on Groff’s background appears in the Oct. 1, 1889 issue of the Eau Claire (Wisc.) Daily Leader and other newspapers across the nation after Groff was nominated to a post by President Benjamin Harrison:

 “Judge Lewis A. Groff, recently appointed commissioner of the general land office, was born in Wooster, O[hio], Dec. 31, 1841, and spent his boyhood on a farm in Henry county. He was given a sound common-school education, and at the age of 20 began the study of law at Napoleon, O[hio], and continued his study at Toledo, a year or two later on. Judge Groff has a splendid physique. He is vigorous, genial and of a happy disposition, and has been a very hard worker, but has not at all injured his health. He was admitted to the bar in 1867 and practiced in Toledo until 1870, being assistant United States attorney for a time.”

News stories nowadays do not typically comment on an appointee’s “physique” and “happy disposition.” Could this have been an 1889 version of a “press release”?

The article recounts that Groff moved to Lincoln, Neb., where he practiced law, then scooted to Omaha, and “was appointed judge of the district court in April, 1887, and in the following November he was elected to succeed himself.”

The puff piece declares that “[a]s a judge he has won an enviable reputation as being both able and just.”

The sketch to the right accompanied the article in newspapers publishing it.

Groff’s nomination was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Dec. 10, 1889.

Other facets of Groff’s past are worth noting:

He served during the Civil War in the Ohio Infantry of the National Guard. Records show that Groff entered as a corporal and…for whatever reason…exited as a private.

Groff was elected a Police Court judge in Lincoln in 1872, serving, according to the 1889 book “History of the City of Lincoln,” in 1873.

That book also tells of sales of lots in Lincoln, which became the capital of Nebraska upon its admission to the Union in 1867. Certain lots were reserved for the Capitol, a university, and for churches. Of those that went on the market between 1867-69, “[f]ew lots sold for less than $40, and few over $150.” Groff was, according to the book, one of the “leading buyers.”

In 1884, Groff obtained a judgment in the United States Supreme Court ordering commissioners of a Nebraska county to impose a special tax in an amount sufficient to pay a judgment in favor of Groff’s client. On the case with him were attorneys William H. Munger, later a U.S. District Court judge, and Groff’s law partner, C.S. Montgomery.

Groff and Montgomery in 1886 persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to dismiss an appeal on the ground that the amount in controversy did not reach the jurisdictional minimum of $5,000. The federal trial court had made no finding as to value of the property in issue. The Circuit Court of Appeals permitted the filing of affidavits; 10 affiants said the property was worth in excess of $5,000, eight valued it at less, but, the opinion notes, “the certificate of the county clerk shows that it was valued for taxation in 1884 at only $700.” The clerk’s valuation obviously tilting the scales, the opinion says: “Under these circumstances, we think the decided preponderance of the evidence is against our jurisdiction, and the motion to dismiss is therefore granted.”

After being appointed to a judgeship, Groff had to file a court action to get paid. The 1887 Nebraska Supreme Court case of In re Groff was decided after the state was divided into 12 judicial districts and judges were appointed by the governor. Uncertainty loomed as to the legality of the Legislature’s eleventh-hour diddling with the composition of one of the districts. The possible infirmity did not affect the other districts, the opinion says, ordaining that the state pay the judges, including Groff, sitting in those districts.

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