Lewis Morris

Judge and Chief Judge of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, 1715-1733

Lewis Morris was born in New York on October 15, 1671. His father, Captain Richard Morris, had served with distinction in Cromwell's army. Following the Restoration, Captain Morris fled from England to Barbados and later moved to New Amsterdam where, with his brother, Colonel Lewis Morris, he purchased the estates of Jonas Broncks, the first settler of Westchester County.

Orphaned in infancy, Lewis Morris was raised on the family's extensive estates by his uncle, Colonel Lewis Morris. When the colonel died in February 1691, he willed his estates to his nephew and on May 8, 1697, Governor Fletcher granted Morris a patent that established the estate as the Manor of Morrisania.

Morris studied law and became an attorney and a member of the New Jersey Council. He was elected to the Assembly in 1707 and became president of the Council in 1710. On March 15, 1715, Morris was appointed Chief Judge of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature. In this capacity, he presided over the 1733 case of Cosby v. Van Dam. The case was decided in favor of Governor Cosby by a majority of the court, Justices De Lancey and Philipse. Chief Justice Morris dissented and delivered a written opinion in which he stated that the Supreme Court of Judicature did not have jurisdiction in the case. Governor Cosby demanded the written opinion from Morris. Morris complied, but also arranged to have the decision printed and publically distributed, accompanied by a letter in which he stated: "If judges are to be intimidated so as not to dare to give any opinion, but what is pleasing to the Governor, and agreeable to his private views, the people of this province who are very much concerned both with respect to their lives and fortunes in the freedom and independency of those who are to judge them, may possibly not think themselves so secure in either of them as the laws of his Majesty intended they should be."

Morris's publication of his dissenting opinion enraged Governor Cosby, who summarily removed Chief Judge Morris from office. Morris and his son went to London to appeal Cosby's action, and the Lords of the Board of Trade ultimately declared Cosby's removal of Morris without a formal inquiry illegal.

Lewis Morris was a strong advocate of freedom of opinion and of the press, and was closely allied with William Smith and James Alexander, the attorneys who initially represented John Peter Zenger at his trial for seditious libel. Crown v. Zenger is a landmark case in the jurisprudence of colonial America.

In 1738, King George II of Great Britain appointed Lewis Morris Governor of New Jersey, an office that he held until his death in 1746. He was grandfather to Lewis Morris III, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and Gouverneur Morris, legislator, statesman and diplomat.


SOURCES

Daly, Charles Patrick. Historical Sketch of the Judicial Tribunals of New York from 1623 to 1846. New York, 1855.

McAdam, David., ed. A History of the Bench and Bar of New York. New York, 1897.

Vile, John R. Great American Judges: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, 2003.