Described as one of the most able leaders of the anti-slavery movement, Milton Sutliff traveled, at his own expense, promulgating anti-slavery doctrines, forming societies, leading public discussions and giving private interviews.
Sutliff was born Oct. 16, 1806 in Trumbull County, Ohio to Samuel Jr. and Ruth Granger Sutliff, who migrated to Ohio from Connecticut. He was educated in the local schools and was employed as a teacher both in Ohio and in Mississippi. He returned to Ohio and entered Western Reserve College in 1830, graduating in 1833 with a bachelor’s degree.
Sutliff became involved with the anti-slavery movement while at college and after graduation, he received an agency from the Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society. He was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1834 and settled in Warren, where he opened a law practice, and was later joined by George M. Tuttle and John Stull. In 1839, Sutliff formed a partnership with Henry W. King.
Sutliff was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1849 as a member of the Free Soil party and was instrumental in getting Benjamin F. Wade sent to the U.S. Senate. He served one term in the Senate. In the Oct. 13, 1857 election, he won a position on the Supreme Court of Ohio, taking his seat on Feb. 9, 1858. He served five years, the last of which he served as Chief Justice. His opinions are in volumes 8 through 13 of the Ohio State Reports.
One celebrated case during Sutliff’s term on the Supreme Court was Ex Parte Bushnell and Langston (1859). On Sept. 13, 1858, a federal marshal in Oberlin, Ohio arrested a runaway slave named John Price. Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the federal government was required to assist slaveholders in reclaiming their runaway slaves. The marshal knew that many Oberlin residents were committed to abolitionism. To avoid conflict with local people, he took Price to nearby Wellington. After peaceful negotiations failed, the mob stormed the hotel and returned Price to Oberlin, where they hid him in the home of Oberlin College's president. A short time later, they took Price to freedom in Canada.
A federal grand jury indicted 37 of the people who freed Price. Ohio authorities responded by arresting the federal marshal, his deputies and other men involved in Price's detention. Following negotiations between state and federal officials, the arresting officers were set free, as were 35 of those arrested under the federal charges. Only two of those indicted went to trial: Simeon Bushnell and Charles Langston were found guilty in federal court in April 1859.
Bushnell and Langston filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Supreme Court. They claimed that the federal government did not have the authority to arrest or to try them because the Fugitive Slave Law was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law 3-2.
When his term ended on Feb. 9, 1863, Sutliff returned to Warren and resumed his private law practice. In 1872, he was nominated for Congress by the Democratic Party, but was defeated.
Sutliff died in Warren on April 24, 1878 and is buried in the family plot in Oakwood Cemetery in Warren. His estate left $10,000 in property to the city of Warren to assist in the establishment of a public library there. The Warren Public Library, complete with a memorial Sutliff lecture room, was opened and dedicated on Feb. 3, 1906.
b. Oct. 16, 1806
d. April 24, 1878
41st Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio