Judge Charles Sumner Johnson
JUDGE C. S. JOHNSON has been
a resident of Alaska for sixteen
years. He came from Nebraska to
Sitka in 1889 as United States Attorney for the district. In 1897 President
McKinley appointed him to the office
of Judge of the District Court of Alaska, a position which he filled until the
spring of 1 900, when he resigned to
engage in the practice of law at Nome.
Judge Johnson's earliest recollections are
associated with a log cabin on an Iowa
prairie where he was born August 31,
1854. He is of Scotch ancestry, and
his father was one of the pioneers of
Ohio. C. S. Johnson's boyhood days
were spent in Iowa. He attended the
public schools of Clarinda, a town in
Page County. When he was fifteen
years old he was thrown upon his own
resources to obtain the education which
he so much desired. He learned the
printer's trade, and earned enough
money at the case to attend the Iowa
State College. In 1877 he was graduated from the law department of the University of Iowa, and the same year he moved to
Wahoo, Nebraska, and began the practice of law with N. H. Bell, under the firm name
of Bell & Johnson.
He was married September 18, 1879. Mrs. Johnson is the daughter of Major J. B. Davis, of Wahoo, Neb. In I 882 Judge Johnson was elected to the
Nebraska Legislature from Saunders County. Three years later he moved to Nelson, Neb.,
and served two terms as Prosecuting Attorney of Nuckols County. In 1889, and before
the expiration of his second term of office, he received the appointment of U. S. Attorney for
He went to Sitka, where he lived until the expiration of his term of office; and it
is a noteworthy fact that he is the only District Attorney for Alaska whoever served a full term. After the expiration of his term of office he practiced law in Juneau until 1897.
when he received the appointment of Judge of the Federal Court for the District of Alaska.
His resignation in 1900 was because of the inadequate salary attached to the office,
$3,000 a year. The Attorney General urgently requested him to reconsider his resignation
upon the assurance that his salary would be doubled, a bill containing a provision to in-
crease the salaries of judges of district courts to $7,500 being before Congress at that time.
This is the outline sketch of a busy and eventful life. Some of the details of this
outline furnish an interesting part of the history of Alaska and an important feature of jurisprudence in the United States. In 1899 the growth of the mining camps in the Yukon
Valley and the discovery of gold at Nome created the necessity for a session of the District
Court in a number of places in this part of the district. Accordingly, Judge Johnson started
on a circuit that required him to make a trip of 7,000 miles. The itinerary was as follows :
To Dawson via White Pass, down the Yukon to Eagle, Circle, Rampart and St. Michael,
terms of court being held in each place ; thence to Nome, where the first session of the District
Court was held ; thence to Unalaska, Unga and Kadiak, a revenue cutter being provided by
the Government for this part of the trip; and thence to Sitka, or, as the miners say in their
location notices on placer claims, "to the point of beginning." This journey occupied a
period of three months, and is undoubtedly one of the longest circuits ever made by a court.
At that time Judge Johnson's jurisdiction extended over a territory near 600,000 square
miles in extent, and the only means of expeditious travel were vessels on navigable streams.
The vast interior was a wilderness, (it is but little more today) only partially explored by the
When Judge Johnson arrived in Nome in August he found a spacious tent for the
accommodation of the court. The rainy season was making a record, and the tent was not
impervious to the constant downpour, but leaked bountifully. Mud in the streets of Nome
was from a foot to two feet in depth, and a part of the vestment of the Judge when he
convened court were a slicker and a pair of gum boots. At this session some important questions were submitted to Judge Johnson for adjudication. There were requests for injunctions and receivers. These requests, after hearing, were denied. He was called upon to
decide the right of an alien to hold mining ground acquired by location. The question was
very important as it involved title to some of the most valuable property in the country, and
the court was without a precedent. The issue had never been brought to bar before,
although there were decisions that indicated the drift of the Supreme Court's opinion. He
decided that the United States was the only party that had the right to question citizenship.
This opinion has since been affirmed by the Supreme Court.
The question of the Constitution following the flag, of the right of Congress to pass
special impost laws for Alaska, was brought before him in a case of refusal to pay the
Government special license tax on business conducted in Alaska. While his law library furnished
him with but meager information on the subject, the discussions of the government of our
insular possessions in the law journals at that time were helpful. In deciding in favor of the
validity of the special license tax he assumed that the Constitution was passed by the states
for the government of the states, and not for the government of citizens of territories. This
decision, which was the first rendered upon this question, has been affirmed and is now the
supreme law of the land.
During Judge Johnson's incumbency there was a sharp conflict between the United
States and the Canadian Governments over the question of pelagic sealing. Many seizures of
vessels were made by our Government, and prosecutions in the District Court of Alaska followed. Some of the questions involved were very delicate. The matter was finally
submitted to an international arbitration committee, which annulled our laws and fined Uncle
Sam $425,000 for the vessels he had captured and the damage he had thereby done.
Judge Johnson's interpretation of the law has been comparatively free of mistakes,
only two of his decisions have been reversed by the Supreme Court. By the exercise of the
court's prerogative and refusing to grant injunctions and appoint receivers at the first term of
the District Court in Nome, the rightful owners of the properties were permitted to work the
ground and extract enough gold to fight their cases to a successful termination when the halcyon days of the injunction and receiver came in the judicial regime of the following year.
Law is best administered when it best subserves justice.
Judge Johnson is an affable gentleman, a man of refinement and culture. He has a
depth and breadth of mind which enable him to grasp principles, possesses a true perception
of ethics and a broad understanding of human character. As a lawyer he occupies a
leading position among the members of the Nome bar, and as a citizen commands the respect and
esteem of the community.
Source: Nome and Seward Peninsula by
R. S. Harrison. Seattle: The Metropolitan Press, 1905.