History of the courts

Articles on Wisconsin legal history

Great Wisconsin judges: Roujet D. Marshall

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

Roujet Delisle Marshall (who was named after the composer of the French national anthem, "La Marseillaise") was born in New Hampshire in 1847. His family moved to Wisconsin and settled in Sauk County when he was a child.

Marshall's family had only modest means, but Marshall was endowed with a phenomenal capacity for hard work and a burning determination to succeed, which enabled him to educate himself in the law while farming full time. As a self-made man, he was a fervent believer in rugged individualism and the idea that anyone can succeed through hard work. These beliefs deeply influenced his judicial philosophy.

Marshall began the practice of law in Chippewa Falls in 1873. At that time Chippewa Falls was one of the centers of the thriving Wisconsin lumber industry. Many local lawyers "readily turned aside ... at most any time during business hours to enjoy a social game of cards with more or less drinks by the side," but Marshall devoted himself almost exclusively to his work.

Marshall's practice prospered and he soon came to the attention of Frederick Weyerhaeuser, an Illinois businessman who had extensive timber holdings in the Chippewa Valley and was beginning to form an empire that would eventually include huge holdings in northern Wisconsin and the Pacific Northwest. Marshall became the chief lawyer for Weyerhaeuser's interests in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and he grew rich along with Weyerhaeuser. Marshall played an important role in uniting Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire lumbermen in the "Chippewa Pool," which controlled lumber operations in northwest Wisconsin for more than 30 years.

In 1885 Marshall was elected the circuit judge for northwest Wisconsin. He gained a reputation as a hard taskmaster, demanding as much work from the lawyers and juries who appeared in his court as he did from himself. He became known for his long, elaborate legal opinions and for his ability to dispose quickly of the many cases which came before him.

After several unsuccessful attempts, Marshall gained a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1895. He remained on the court until 1918. During the Progressive era, Marshall urged his colleagues to consider new reform laws carefully and strike them down if they interfered excessively with individual liberty. He argued that under the Wisconsin Constitution, "preservation of liberty is given precedent [even] over the establishment of government." He explained that if government were not held in check:

... one would be placed in such a strait-jacket that liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the incentive to industry, to the acquirement and enjoyment of property -- those things commonly supposed to make a nation intelligent, progressive, propserous, and great -- would be largely impaired and in some cases destroyed.

Marshall had only mixed success in converting his colleagues to his views. The court struck down some minor Progressive reforms at Marshall's urging but it upheld most of the major reform laws. In many cases Marshall himself agreed the laws were constitutional. Marshall was by no means a doctrinaire conservative. For example, he strongly supported a workers' compensation system and played an important part in persuading the Legislature to adopt such a system in 1911. He also strongly supported a highway building program after the automobile appeared in Wisconsin about 1900.

Marshall's downfall came in 1915 when he persuaded the court to strike down a series of Progressive laws designed to help conserve Wisconsin's dwindling forests. Marshall, perhaps influenced by his past association with the lumber industry, argued that the Wisconsin Constitution did not allow the state to spend money for this purpose. When Marshall next came up for reelection the voters turned him out in favor of Attorney General Walter Owen, a thoroughgoing Progressive.

Marshall spent the remaining years until his death in 1922 giving his money to charities and writing a lengthy autobiography. Shortly after his death, Justice Owen made it clear that the Supreme Court was turning away from Marshall's philosophy. Nevertheless, Marshall played a useful and honorable role in expressing a point of view on the court which, though it did not prevail, forced his colleagues to think more clearly about the meaning of their decisions upholding the Progressive program.

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.

Back to top

Back to articles on Wisconsin legal history