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John Milton Goodenow

While John Milton Goodenow’s time on the Supreme Court of Ohio was brief, a slander case in which he was involved made it all the way to the high court.

Goodenow was born in 1782 in Westmoreland, N.H. to Nahum and Abigail Cole Goodenow. Educated in the common schools, Goodenow later taught school and pursued the study of law. In September 1812, Goodenow and his family moved to Steubenville, Ohio, where he studied law with John Crafts Wright, who later became his brother-in-law. Admitted to the Ohio bar in August 1813, Goodenow established a legal practice in Steubenville. From 1813 to 1830, he represented clients in the Fifth Judicial Circuit, which included Belmont, Columbiana, Guernsey, Harrison, Jefferson, Monroe, Stark and Tuscarawas counties.

Gov. Thomas Worthington commissioned him as a justice of the peace for Steubenville Township in Jefferson County on May 17, 1817 and he served until April 14, 1820. Additionally, Goodenow was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Dec. 15, 1817 to be collector of direct taxes and internal duties for the Sixth Collection District of Ohio.

Goodenow’s other brother-in-law was Benjamin Tappan, president judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit. Early in 1817, Goodenow applied to the Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas to be appointed prosecuting attorney of Jefferson County. Tappan and two common pleas judges were responsible for the appointment and he used his influence to deny Goodenow the position. Many witnesses heard Tappan remark about Goodenow’s character, “He fled his country to escape from justice, and disguises himself under a borrowed name; he is unfit to be trusted…He is a d---d rascal, and an immoral and base man, and unless ignorance of the law makes a lawyer, he is no lawyer.” Goodenow sued Tappan for slander. The Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas found Tappan guilty and awarded Goodenow $600 in damages. This was a sizeable sum, as Tappan’s judicial salary was only $750 per year. It was appealed to the Supreme Court in 1823 in Goodenow v. Tappan. The Justices tied on a vote of 2-2, so the common pleas decision was upheld.

Goodenow’s relationship with Tappan further deteriorated when Tappan ruled in Ohio v. Lafferty (1817) that crimes under English common law could be punished in Ohio, although the Ohio General Assembly had not passed legislation making the acts crimes. Goodenow strongly protested and wrote a lengthy text titled, Historical Sketches of the Principles and Maxims of American Jurisprudence, in Contrast with the Doctrine of English Common Law on the Subject of Crimes and Punishments. Paying to have 60 copies printed in 1819, he distributed them to friends and law libraries. Legal opinion shifted to his view that only crimes that were statutes could be punished by the Court. Supreme Court Justice John W. Okey cited this book and its premise as authoritative in his majority opinion in Mitchell v. the State of Ohio (1884). The book was reprinted in 1972 and is an important resource for legal historians studying the development of American jurisprudence.

In 1819, Humphrey Howe Leavitt and Goodenow established a legal partnership in Steubenville, which they dissolved in 1823. Goodenow was elected to represent Jefferson County in the Ohio House of Representatives in 1823 and served in the 1823-24 session. He won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in the Andrew Jackson Presidential landslide of 1828.

On April 9, 1830, he resigned to assume his new position as Supreme Court Justice. Under the 1802 Constitution, Justices were required to hold Court in each county of Ohio once a year. They began their circuit in late April and continued until December. With this schedule, Goodenow served in Congress until early April. Due to an illness, he was forced to resign as Justice on May 7, 1830.

Goodenow bought a farm in Bloomfield, Trumbull County and moved there to regain his health. In April 1832, Goodenow and his nephew, Crafts J. Wright, established a legal partnership to practice law in Cincinnati. Soon after opening their practice on May 11, 1832, Goodenow was solicited by members of the Cincinnati bar to consider becoming a candidate for the president judge of the Ninth Judicial Circuit. Gov. Robert Lucas commissioned him on Feb. 8, 1833.

The Ninth Judicial Circuit included the counties of Hamilton, Brown and Clermont. The president judge with two judges from each court of common pleas in the three counties conducted court several times each year. Goodenow traveled to Cincinnati, Georgetown and Batavia often, on horseback and on poor roads. Without the benefit of law libraries to determine precedent, he relied his knowledge of the law as he made decisions. Goodenow was described in the History of Clermont County, Ohio (1880) as being “a clear-headed jurist from Cincinnati…He made a splendid judge, and for many years was a leading attorney and one of the best advocates in Hamilton County.”

Assuming office in February 1833, Goodenow was lobbied by the Democratic-Republican Party to have one of their members appointed to the position of clerk of the court. They wished him to represent the views of the party in this job. Goodenow resisted their solicitations, as he wished to have the position be nonpolitical. He alienated many members of the Cincinnati bar with his sensitivity to criticism. In fact, he wrote a book titled, Historical Record of the Proceedings of the Court of Common Pleas, and “the Bar” of Hamilton County, Ohio, in Reference to the Appointment Clerk of Said Court; 1833 and 1834; Embracing all the Documents and Papers Heretofore Published on the Subject; with New Matter, and a Review of the Whole By the President Judge of Said Court (1834)to defend himself. Due to the controversy, he submitted his resignation to Gov. Lucas on Nov. 29, 1834.

Goodenow married Jane Waters (1786-1812) and they had two children, Lucy (1809-1810) and Angela Jane, (1811-1849). Jane died on March 17, 1812. On Oct. 21, 1815, Goodenow married Sarah (Sallie) Lucy Wright Campbell, the sister of his law teacher, John Crafts Wright. They became the parents of one daughter, Lucia (Lucy) Claiborne Wright Goodenow. Lucy married Joseph Huston Wood on Oct. 21, 1836 in Belmont County, Ohio. The couple moved to the newly independent country of Texas.

Moving to St. Clairsville, Ohio, he began to practice law in 1835. Disappointed that he was not considered for other public offices, John and Sarah Goodenow moved to Texas in November 1837 to join their daughter and son-in-law. Not satisfied with his new home in Texas, he embarked alone on an Ohio River steamboat to return to Cincinnati in the early summer of 1838. He became ill on the journey and died in Cincinnati on July 20, 1838. He was buried in the Episcopal Church burying grounds; his body was later moved to Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati on May 27, 1851. Sarah Goodenow died in Washington County, Texas on July 16 1841.

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b. 1782

d. July 20, 1838

18th Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio

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