Edward V. Whiton (1805-1859)
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice (1848-1859)
Chief Justice (1852-1859)
"If the judicial ermine and gown in Wisconsin shall drop from other shoulders hereafter as pure and unsullied as from his, we shall have no cause to feel ashamed." - Justice Samuel Crawford, Whiton's memorial service (1859)
Edward Vernon Whiton was born June 2, 1805, and raised in South Lee, Massachusetts. He attended school and studied law for seven years with a private firm. In 1836, Whiton came to the Wisconsin Territory, where he purchased land and built a cabin near Janesville.
Whiton successfully sought a seat in the first territorial Assembly in 1837. He was elected speaker of the Assembly in 1839 and published the first collection of territorial laws. The arduous task of recording all of the laws passed by the Legislature was a great contribution since no complete record yet existed. Whiton served in the Assembly until elected a delegate to the 1848 state Constitutional Convention.
After Wisconsin became a state in 1848, Whiton was elected circuit judge for the 1st Judicial Circuit. Pursuant to the state constitution, he joined the four other circuit judges to form the first Wisconsin Supreme Court.
In 1852, elections were held for a chief justice and two associate justices to comprise a separate Supreme Court beginning in 1853. Wisconsin was a heavily Democratic state at the time. Whiton, representing the Whig party, ran for chief justice against the Democratic candidate, Charles Larrabee, who was also a member of the original Supreme Court. In a very narrow election, Whiton defeated Larrabee and became the first elected chief justice of the separate Supreme Court.
While on the Supreme Court, Whiton played an important role in Ableman v. Booth (1854), a highly controversial case involving Milwaukee abolitionist Sherman M. Booth and the Fugitive Slave Act. Whiton and Justice Abram D. Smith defied the federal law and ordered Booth's release from jail. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which overturned the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision several years later.
Whiton did not live to see the end of the controversy. He left the bench April 12, 1859, and died the same day at the age of 54. Whiton was known as a kind and courteous man, particularly to the younger lawyers who appeared before him. His fellow justices praised his collegiality, integrity and honesty.