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Great Wisconsin lawyers: John C. Spooner

Written by Joseph A. Ranney, Attorney at Law
Phone: (608) 283-5612

John Coit Spooner is a forgotten figure today, but during the late 1800s he was one of the leading figures in Wisconsin law and politics.

Spooner was born in 1843. His father, Philip Spooner, was an influential Madison lawyer and John followed in his footsteps.

After graduating from law school, Spooner became an expert in railroad law. He was much in demand. Railroads were growing rapidly and were constantly being sued for injuring animals, people and property along their tracks. They also needed advice on how to cope with ever-increasing government regulation.

Spooner moved to Hudson in 1870 and quickly became general counsel for the Western Wisconsin Railroad, the leading railroad in northwest Wisconsin. In 1874, he won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court important to railroads everywhere. Many railroads depended on land grants from Congress which they sold to finance their operations. Congress usually required railroads to build part of their land by a certain date or lose the grant. Spooner convinced the Supreme Court to rule that the grant would never expire unless and until Congress gave it to someone else.

Spooner was a loyal Republican, and in 1885 he was elected to the U.S. Senate. He quickly became one of a select inner circle of senators who dictated the agenda the Senate -- and thus the nation -- would follow.

In 1890 Spooner wrote an important section of the nation's first antitrust law, the Sherman Act. Spooner's contribution was to give courts the power to use injunctions to curb monopolistic behavior; that is, to order businesses to stop unfair economic practices. Ironically, during the 1890s, the courts used these injunctions mostly as a weapon against labor unions. Spooner also displayed a rare (for him) progressive streak by working to increase black voting rights in the South.

Spooner was swept out of office when the Democrats briefly returned to power in Wisconsin in the early 1890s. He returned to the Senate in 1897 when the Republicans regained control. However, his power declined after Robert LaFollette was elected governor in 1900.

Spooner was politically opposed to LaFollette. He particularly disliked LaFollette's efforts to create a "direct primary" which would take nominations for public office out of the hands of party conventions and would allow anyone to vote in the Republican primary without declaring party loyalty. Spooner felt that the new system "would build up a lot of personal machines, would make every man a self-seeker, and would degrade politics by turning candidacies into bitter personal wrangles."

Shortly after LaFollette was elected to the Senate in 1906, Spooner resigned and moved to New York City, where he resumed the practice of railroad law. He continued to practice in New York until his death in 1919.

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone. Distributed as a public service by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in honor of the state's sesquicentennial.

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