Vermont Bar Journal
THE VERMONT BAR JOURNALVolume 38, No. 1Spring 2012RUMINATIONS John H. Senter: A Crusty World Viewby Paul S. Gillies, Esq.On the front wall of the Washington County Courthouse in Montpelier, over on the left, is a portrait of a red-haired, bristly-mustached man looking adamant and very serious, ready for a fight. Meet John H. Senter, one of the city's greatest lawyers, and a man with ambition and spunk.
Born in Cabot in 1848, Senter attended school in Cabot and graduated from high school in Concord, New Hampshire. He taught school in Maine, then returned to Montpelier and on to Warren, where he continued teaching. He said he taught forty-three terms in his career, but he was not satisfied with life, so as he reached thirty, he read the law in the office of Clarence H. Pitkin in Montpelier and was admitted to practice in 1879.(fn1) He opened an office in Warren, where for the next six years he served the needs of the valley.(fn2) In 1885, he returned to Montpelier and joined Harlan Kemp in a partnership that lasted six years. He later formed a partnership with his son Clarence, as Senter and Senter, with their offices at the corner of Winter and Summer Streets in Montpelier.(fn3)
He was busy, and he had a sense of public duty. He served as attorney, director, and officer of the Union Mutual Fire Insurance Company for most of his career in Montpelier.(fn4) He was secretary to the Montpelier Board of Trade, and Montpelier's fourth mayor in 1898 and 1899. He was state's attorney for two years, 1903-1904. In 1906, he served as town representative in the legislature, and as a member of the State Tax Commission.
Politically he was a Democrat, in a state that was pure Republican. For thirty years he served as secretary or assistant secretary of the Democratic Party, attended many national conventions, and ran unsuccessfully as the party's candidate for governor in 1900. President Graver Cleveland appointed him National Bank Examiner (1885-1889) and United States District Attorney (1893-1897). He was named Commissioner of the U.S. Circuit Court for Vermont by Judge Wheeler in 1886.(fn5)
His office, while he was half of Senter and Kemp, was located at 47 State Street, on the corner of State and Elm Streets, across Elm from the Washington County Courthouse. In advertising for his firm, Senter and Kemp explained they were lawyers, agents for fire, life and accident insurance, and for Remington typewriters, as well as law reporters for the Vermont Supreme Court for the Atlantic Reporter.(fn6) Senter married Addie Martin of Warren in 1873, and they had five children. They resided, and later Senter ran his office out of their home, at 12 Winter Street. At 10,000 volumes, Senter had the largest law library in Vermont.(fn7)
That's the biography. Consider his temperament. Frank Fish, who compiled the biographies of the judges, justices, and lawyers of Vermont, was clerk to Chief Judge Loveland Munson. He remembers John H. Senter: Once I was sent by [the Chief Judge] from the Supreme Court chamber to summon John H. Senter, of Montpelier, to argue a case that day that had been assigned for the next. Mr. Senter was a brilliant man of high ideals in his profession, but very rough. He didn't want to argue the case that day and told me that he would not do so in terms that would not bear printing. I delivered his exact words to the Chief Judge, but instead of anger on his part was met with this further instruction, made in the most kindly manner: "You go to Mr. Senter again and tell him that / want him to come to-day." Mr. Senter returned to court with me this time and began his argument immediately.(fn8)
Senter had a capacity to put himself in the center of things. He is named as a principal in the case of Downing v. Lyon (1885).(fn9) Downing's personal property, including a butter-tub machine, was sold at auction on execution to Senter for $125. Lyford, the deputy sheriff, was prohibited by law from bidding, as he conducted the sale, and Downing claimed Senter was simply a front for Lyford. This case was tried in the court of chancery, and a master made findings of fact for consideration by Chancellor Russell Taft. Those facts concluded that Lyford and Senter had done just as Downing had said. Taft disposed of the matter succinctly, in a single paragraph, leaving no question that he disapproved of the practice, and voided the sale.
When John Senter was mayor of Montpelier, at March meeting in 1898, the charter prohibited compensation for that office. That November the legislature amended the charter to provide for a salary of $300. The mayor was paid the salary before he took office, as were the aldermen, who each were paid $150. The following year, the city sued Senter to recover the money. At trial Senter prevailed, but the Vermont Supreme Court reversed the judgment in 1900, in City of Montpelier v. Senter.(fn10 )Judge John Rowell wrote the opinion, addressing the...