In 1864, the voters elected James F. Lewis, as one of the three original men to serve as a supreme court justice on the first Nevada Supreme Court bench. Henry Beatty
and Cornelius Brosnan
were the other men elected at the same time, and at age 28, Lewis was the youngest of the original jurists.
Born in Wales in 1836, James Lewis grew up in New York and attended local schools. In 1856, his family moved to Wisconsin, where he worked as a telegraph operator and studied law. In 1860, he passed the state bar examination and practiced law before setting out for the Nevada Territory.
Intrigued by the mining boom
, Lewis sailed to the West Coast in 1862 and later moved to Washoe City, Nevada. He boarded with and formed a law partnership with Territorial Judge John North, a controversial figure in Nevada’s history because of his decisions on mining law opposed by the future U.S. Senator William Morris Stewart.
Aided by his partnership with North and political involvement in the Union (Republican) Party, Territorial Governor James Nye appointed Lewis as the Washoe County district attorney
in April 1864. Subsequently, the voters elected Lewis to the post in September, but he resigned when he won the supreme court seat two months later.
Shortly after the supreme court election, he married Elizabeth Raymond from Wisconsin in San Francisco on November 17, 1864.
On December 4, 1864, the original justices took their oath of office for terms that began in January 1865. The Nevada Constitution provided that the original justices draw lots to determine who would serve a term of two years, four years and six years. From then on, the terms were for six years. The man who drew the shortest term served as the first chief justice, then, the four-year term holder, followed by the six-year term justice. Lewis drew the two-year term and served as the chief justice from 1865 until 1868.
After he completed his two-year term as the first chief justice, the Republican Party re-nominated him, and the voters re-elected him to the bench in 1866. He beat W. C. Wallace, a Democrat, by 1,100 votes. During his six-year term, Lewis served as chief justice again from November 1868 to January 1, 1873.
His most unpopular dissenting opinion was in the case of Frenchman John Millain in 1867. A jury convicted Millain of the murder of Julia Bulette, a well-liked madam in Virginia City. While the other justices upheld his conviction, Lewis disapproved of two jury instructions used to convict Millain. The first instruction given by District Court Judge Richard Rising stated that the jury could find Millain guilty of first degree murder or innocent of the charges. Lewis believed that the instruction should have mentioned the jury could find him guilty of second degree murder.
And, Lewis believed that the second questionable instruction stated that the evidence tended to show that the defendant possessed some of the victim’s property after the murder. Lewis believed the instruction assumed that the property belonged to the deceased without any proof the items were hers. Newspaper editors and others strongly criticized Lewis’ opinion because Bulette was as popular as Millain was despised. Because of the nature of the crime, thousands turned out to watch his execution by hanging.
When the time came for Lewis’s re-nomination, believing it was inappropriate to campaign, he failed to promote his candidacy. Consequently, the Republicans did not nominate him for a third term. Retiring in 1873, he opened his law practice with W. E. F. Deal in Virginia City. In 1874, the partners set up shop with Judge North and they maintained offices in Virginia City and San Francisco.
In 1880, Lewis partnered with George Berry, who had lived in Humboldt County and currently was living in Tombstone, Arizona. Lewis moved to and remained in Arizona for a year or two, but the climate affected his health, so he moved back to San Francisco. That year, he returned to Arizona to handle a mining case. On his way home, the train broke down. After the passengers stuck in the sizzling sun for 30 hours, he and others walked to Fort Yuma less than two miles away, where he gulped down too much ice water or lemonade before walking back to the train. He fell ill and died allegedly of a stroke on August 17, 1886 at age 50. He is buried at Lone Mountain Cemetery in Carson City.