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Nelson, Rensselaer (1826–1904)

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Rensselaer Nelson

Rensselaer Nelson in his fifties, ca. 1870s.

From statehood in May 1858 until May 1896, Minnesota had one resident federal district court judge. His name was Rensselaer Russell Nelson.

Nelson was born in Cooperstown, New York, in 1826, the son of lawyer Samuel Nelson, who served on the US Supreme Court (1845–1872). Rensselaer Nelson studied at Yale and then read law in New York State. In 1850 he moved to St. Paul. After a stint in Superior, Wisconsin (1853–1854), he returned to St. Paul for good.

In 1857 President James Buchanan appointed Nelson to a seat on the Minnesota territorial supreme court. The judges of this court served both as appellate judges and trial judges, and since Nelson was a trial judge based in St. Paul, the state capital controversy fell to him to decide. The 1857 legislature had passed a bill to move the territorial capital to St. Peter, but Senator Joe Rolette had made off with the bill itself so that Governor Gorman could not sign it. After the end of the legislative session aggrieved backers of the bill sued to require the governor and other officials to move their offices to St. Peter. Judge Nelson ruled that the legislature lacked the power to move the capital.

With Minnesota statehood in May 1858, Congress also created a Minnesota federal judicial district, which needed a judge. President Buchanan appointed Nelson once again. Nelson then faced a task unique in Minnesota history: creating a new, statewide federal court, where a system of state courts was taking shape at the same time. It was hard duty and slow going.

Congress had given the federal courts power to take on only specific categories of cases. One was cases involving federal law—the Constitution and acts of Congress. These did not come up often in Minnesota’s early years. When they did it was mostly in minor cases involving avoiding federal liquor taxes, selling liquor to Native Americans, and stealing timber from government lands. Judge Nelson heard a few hundred of these, but they counted for only a fraction of his caseload.

The biggest category of federal court cases involved state law. The Minnesota federal court could also take cases in which one of the parties was a citizen of a different state. As the state and its economy grew, disputes between Minnesota businesses and people from other states became frequent.

Judge Nelson had to try cases and make decisions across the entire range of American law— admiralty (steamboat law), patents (many involving inventions in the farming and milling industries), real estate, wills, and personal injury (especially railroad injuries), to name just some of the vast variety. He did this mostly alone, and before there was any nationwide system for communicating changes in law or important decisions in other states.

A few of Nelson’s cases rose to national importance. In 1874 he ruled, in United States v. Forty-Three Gallons of Whisky, that a US treaty with the Ojibwe forbidding the sale of liquor to Native Americans did not bind the State of Minnesota and had no force outside the reservation. The US Supreme Court disagreed.

In 1889 the Minnesota legislature passed a law requiring local inspection of all meat products before sale. In Minnesota v. Barber (1890), Judge Nelson ruled that law unconstitutional for interference with interstate commerce. In two other cases, involving margarine and a St. Paul wharf tax, respectively, Nelson also affirmed Congress’s power over commerce.

Starting in the 1870s, railroad cases dominated his calendar—railroad organization, railroad land disputes, and especially railroad injury cases. In this era before safety laws or workers’ compensation, the deaths and maimings of railroad workers brought hundreds of cases to federal court. The law favored the railroads; Nelson tilted, when he could, toward the victims.

When Judge Nelson retired in 1896 he was the longest-serving US federal judge and the only one in office appointed before the Civil War. He died in St. Paul in 1904.

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"The City: Oleo Law Knocked Out." St. Paul Pioneer Press, November 26, 1890.

Heilman, Cheryl. “Minnesota Judges and Lawyers Who Made History.” Bench & Bar of Minnesota, June 1, 2008.

"Judge Rensselaer R. Nelson Dies at St. Luke's Hospital." St. Paul Globe, October 16, 1904.

"The Meat Law" [editorial]. St. Paul Daily Globe, September 24, 1889.

Minnesota v. Barber, 39 Fed. 641 (1889).

Minnesota v. Barber, 136 US 313 (1890).

Northwestern Union Packet Co. v. St. Paul, 18 Fed. Cas. 412 (1875).

"Now for the Tug of War: The Scheffer Meat Inspection Law Before the United States Court." St. Paul Daily Globe, September 17, 1889.

"R. R. Nelson Is Out: He Resigns the Eighth Minnesota District Judgeship." Rochester Post, May 22, 1896.

"Rensselaer Nelson." Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, Federal Judicial Center.

"Samuel Nelson." Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, Federal Judicial Center.

"Some Naked Truths: A St. Paul Physician Discusses Meat Inspection" [letter to the editor]. St. Paul Daily Globe, October 9, 1889.

"Victory for Armour: The Minnesota Oleomargarine Law Declared Unconstitutional." St. Paul Daily Globe, November 26, 1890.

United States v. Forty-Three Gallons of Whiskey, 93 US 188 (1876).

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Turning Point

In the spring of 1858 President James Buchanan chooses Nelson over Bradley Meeker—another former member of the territorial supreme court—as Minnesota’s first federal district court judge.



Rensselaer Nelson born in Cooperstown, New York, on May 12.


Nelson graduates from Yale University.


After reading law and being admitted to the New York bar, Nelson moves to St. Paul.


Nelson begins his tenure as county attorney in Douglas County (Superior), Wisconsin.


Nelson is appointed to the Minnesota territorial supreme court. He replaces Moses Sherburne, who is accused of being intemperate and unfit. In July he rules that the territorial legislature lacks the power to move the state capital to St. Peter.


Though there is heavy lobbying for Bradley Meeker, President Buchanan appoints Nelson federal district court judge. The first court session is held in October in Preston, Minnesota.


In US v. Forty-Three Gallons of Whisky, Nelson rules that a US treaty with the ORed Lake Ojibwe is not binding on areas of Minnesota outside of the reservation.


Nelson tells a US grand jury in St. Paul that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 is constitutional. The US Supreme Court disagrees eight years later.


Nelson presides over a series of cases against prominent lumbermen accused of trafficking in white-pine lumber stolen from government land.


In Minnesota v. Barber, Nelson rules the state’s meat inspection law unconstitutional. The same year he rules the Minnesota statute forbidding sale of oleomargarine also unconstitutional, for the same reason—interference with interstate commerce.


On May 12, in Duluth, Nelson announces his retirement, effective immediately.


Nelson dies in St. Paul.