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Justice Peter T. Zarella
Remarks at the Connecticut
Supreme Court's
200th Anniversary
June 6, 2008

I am pleased to note that throughout its history Connecticut has had its share of giant personalities. Perhaps none of them, however, larger than Morgan C. Bulkeley - nicknamed Connecticut's "Crowbar" Governor. During his lifetime, Bulkeley served not only as Mayor of Hartford, but also as a United States Senator, President of the Aetna, Chairman of the Commission who built this building, the first President of the National League of Baseball Teams, and Governor of the State of Connecticut. He was also one of the principal actors in the drama that unfolded from 1890 to 1892 that was ultimately resolved by the Supreme Court case of State ex rel. Morris v. Bulkeley.
 

Justice Peter T. Zarella Biography
The events leading up to this historic case are well documented, even if they are not widely known. I must begin by giving credit where it is due and note that I owe a great deal of the history I am able to share with you today to Mr. J. Birney Tuttle who memorialized much of this moment of our state's history in his article, "The Period of Peaceful Anarchy," published by the New Haven County Bar Association in its 1933 annual bulletin, as well as to newspaper reports from the Hartford Times and the Hartford Courant.

The story begins with the election laws that governed the gubernatorial election of 1890. Prior to 1901, the Connecticut Constitution required that to be elected, a candidate for Governor must receive a majority of all votes cast. If no candidate received a majority, then the job of selecting the Governor fell to the General Assembly by virtue of a vote of both the House and the Senate. In the election year of 1890, Governor Bulkeley decided not to seek reelection. Two principal candidates emerged. The Republican candidate was General Samuel E. Merwin and the Democrat Luzon B. Morris. Significantly, both men were universally respected, and they both had die hard supporters. In 1890, the ballots were not printed or supplied by the Secretary of the State. Rather, the political parties in each town provided their own ballots that had to comply with the specifications set forth by statute. A section of the statute, that was key to events that subsequently occurred, provided that ballots should not have any “distinguishing marks."

On November 4th of that year, the voters of Connecticut went to the polls to elect a new Governor. The Democrat, Morris, attained a majority by a mere 26 votes. However, this vote count excluded ballots that local Democratic election moderators had rejected because they deemed them to be non-compliant with the law.

In Bridgeport alone, 126 ballots cast for the Republican, Merwin, were discarded because a fly speck created during the printing process appeared on the face of the ballot. This fly speck was determined to be a distinguishing mark, thus, leading the moderator to discard the ballot and to not count the vote.

State election law at that time required the General Assembly on the first day of the session to examine the election returns and on the second day to declare the winner of the election. On January 7, 1891, the Democratic Senate passed a resolution declaring Morris the winner of the election and the new Governor. The Republican House refused to adopt it. The House agreed only with the Senate's declaration that Nicholas Staub, a Democrat from New Milford, had properly been elected as Comptroller.

Many of the more partisan and passionate Morris supporters threatened to install him as Governor by force and, as was reported in the newspapers, "threatened the peace of the land of 'steady habits’." A courageous Democrat, Senator Cleveland, stood out amidst this stalemate as the lone voice of reason and tried to quell hot tempers. Cleveland reminded his Senate colleagues that one branch of the General Assembly was not enough to install Morris as the Governor; the Constitution required a declaration by the entire General Assembly - which meant both houses. Cleveland was known for boasting that during his life he had done many things to impair his own constitution but never would he do anything to impair the Constitution of the State of Connecticut.

Despite Cleveland's sound argument, events escalated. On a night in early January, the leaders that Cleveland had thwarted in the Senate chamber convinced Staub, the official custodian of the Capitol Building, to change the locks on the executive chambers, as soon as Governor Bulkeley had left for the night. Thus, having physically evicted Bulkeley, these stalwart politicians planned to install Morris in the Governor's chambers the next morning. Morris, who played no part in concocting this plan, was described by Tuttle as a "gentle and non-aggressive" man with a "profound regard for law and order." Upon arriving to work early the next morning and discovering that he had been locked out, Bulkeley - ever the showman - demanded a crowbar and proceeded to force open the doors to the executive chambers and reclaim them as his own. Thus, earning him a nickname for all time - the "Crowbar" Governor.

As with many tense moments, that in hindsight we may find amusing, we must remember that at the time they were occurring, their ultimate peaceful resolution remained uncertain. After the Democrats' "locksmith" stunt, the dangers and threats inherent in the unsettled election of 1890 continued to grow.

The efforts to install Morris did not abate. The Senate, again by resolution, declared Morris Governor and received the vote of every Democratic member, except Senator Cleveland. In preparation for administering the oath of office to Judge Morris, "the Senate appointed a Committee to wait on Governor Bulkeley and invite him to witness Morris' swearing-in." Senator Seymour headed this Committee and, after returning from the mission, reported Bulkeley's response:

"As near as I can remember," Seymour recalled, "Mr. Bulkeley said: 'Gentlemen, I thank you for calling. Report to the Senate that I consider their actions revolutionary and shall recognize no illegal officials'."

The drama rose to its climax when, after administering the oath of office to Morris, a procession arrived at the executive chambers to demand Governor Bulkeley vacate the office of Governor. As Tuttle remembers it, the procession arrived with "threats of revolution, bloodshed and anarchy" and a "strained atmosphere of apprehension. . . . Governor Bulkeley, fashionably dressed stood by the Charter Oak chair, his military figure erect, his usually ruddy face for a moment a pallid white and his usually laughing eyes shining like polished steel, outwardly calm and cold as ice. The only person not appearing to be under any strain was the man who had come to demand the office. Judge Morris, gentle, retiring, and with a deprecatory smile, approached like a lamb being led to the slaughter."

A Senator in the procession endeavored to introduce Governor Morris to Governor Bulkeley, whereupon, Tuttle records the following dialogue between the two respected adversaries:

Governor Bulkeley: "Mr. Morris, I am glad to see you. What can I do for you?”

Judge Morris: "I am here to say that I have been declared elected Governor and have taken the oath of office as Governor. I suppose you are willing to retire from the office."

Governor Bulkeley. "Yes, I am quite willing to retire as soon as anybody legally qualified and elected shall appear, but I don't see any such person here as yet."

Judge Morris. "I expected the declination."

Governor Bulkeley shook hands with Judge Morris and quietly said to him, so that his voice was not heard except by the nearest two or three persons, "Judge Morris, I shall always be glad to welcome you here as a private citizen, but as an illegal claimant to the office of Governor you are not welcome and I request that you immediately retire."

Judge Morris then set an extraordinary example to the throng of impassioned spectators and quietly walked out and no violence erupted.

Following these efforts to install Morris, Governor Bulkeley issued a public proclamation that warned: "all persons to desist from any attempt to take possession of or assume the functions of any of the State offices and that all such attempts would be resisted by the Constitutional authorities of the State of which he was the head."

In response to the proclamation, Senator Fox, on the Senate floor, declared that it was time the Democrats "resisted arms with arms" and called Bulkeley a usurper.

Clearly, all attempts at compromise between the Republican House and the Democratic Senate had failed. Gratefully, before tempers flared any further, the parties decided that the questions of the election should be submitted for determination to our Supreme Court.

In this tale of Connecticut's past, like many other conflicts throughout our nation's history, the ultimate resolution of unanswered questions became the responsibility of the court. On April 14, 1891, State's Attorney Tilton E. Doolittle of New Haven County brought a quo warranto proceeding on behalf of Judge Morris to challenge Governor Bulkeley as the de facto Governor and to determine all the questions involved in the recent election. The Supreme Court concluded that Bulkeley was not only the de facto Governor but also the de jure Governor. The court reasoned that if no successor had been chosen, or being chosen had not become duly qualified, then the sitting Governor still holds the office. Chief Justice Andrews, writing for the court, observed that "The [General Assembly's] declaration is the only evidence by which the other departments of the government and the citizenry generally can know whom to respect as such officer." And the Constitution "has fixed the time and manner in which the General Assembly shall make that declaration. Unless the declaration is made in the way so provided, the process of the election is not complete." In concluding that Bulkeley validly continued to serve as Governor, the court rightfully emphasized that "[i]t is therefore the duty of all citizens, of the courts, of all departments of the state government, and of both houses of the General Assembly, to respect and obey him accordingly."

The court confirmed that the view, previously advocated by Senator Cleveland in standing up to his Senate colleagues, was constitutionally sound. Judge Andrews wrote that: "The declaration of the result of an election is to be made by the General Assembly, and must be made by both houses acting jointly or concurrently. A declaration by one house without the other would have no effect."

The wide acceptance of the court's decision by the legislature, the candidates and the people of Connecticut is what makes this decision significant. It demonstrates that the continued respect for our courts of law as the final arbiter of disputes can and has, as it did in 1890, keep revolution at bay. The Supreme Court in 1890 faced the unenviable task of resolving a political war that had threatened the physical peace and well-being of its citizens. The confidence that the public had in its courts that the decision would be rendered in accordance with the rule of law, and not in accordance with personal or political agendas, calmed a tense situation and is a moment in our Supreme Court history worthy of remembrance.

Additionally, and in conclusion, I suggest that these events demonstrate that the influence of individuals to effect change and to preserve order should not be underestimated. Governor Bulkeley completed his unelected second term as Governor. Judge Morris was elected to the office of Governor in 1893 in his own right. Governor Bulkeley, Governor Morris and Senator Cleveland all were men who, in a time of crisis, exemplified the responsibility that we have as citizens, and as actors in our own governance, to know, respect and adhere to our constitutional principles and processes. I am confident that the next hundred years of both our state and court's history will continue to reveal men and women of such giant personality and caliber.


 

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