Stoddard V. Martin: A Rhode Island Tale, 0414 RIBJ, 62 RI Bar J., No. 5, Pg. 13

AuthorPeter J. Comerford, Esq., Coia & Lepore, Providence.

Stoddard V. Martin: A Rhode Island Tale

Vol. 62 No. 5 Pg. 13

Rhode Island Bar Journal

April, 2014

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0 March, 2014

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0 Peter J. Comerford, Esq., Coia & Lepore, Providence.

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0Within the last year, I was drafting a brief, including an argument that contracts, with an illegal object or purpose, are unenforceable. The deal being proffered by the adverse party did not pass the smell test and authority was required to allow the court to decline to enforce it. Research led to the very first reported decision of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, Stoddard v. Martin, 1 R.I. 1 (1828). The Court cited that case in ruling for my client. The Court's use of that case offered several lessons. That Stoddard v. Martin continues to be cited1 is not only evidence of the power of its original insight, but also of how of legal system works and grows.

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0As Oliver Wendell Holmes noted long ago, the life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience.2 On one level, this means rulings have to be grounded in a realistic understanding of how people live. More deeply, it means the unfolding of ruling upon ruling allows experience to refine, or even overturn, the principles from prior cases.[3]In other words, the law is an unfolding story.4

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0It is much as Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins discuss as they reach the edge of Mordor, in The Two Towers, the second book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sam and Frodo, having braved numerous adventures that we Tolkien mavens know well, and that would bore others to tears, are sitting chatting about old tales out of history.

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0Sam says, "Why, to think of it, we're in the same tale still! It's going on. Don't the great tales never end?" "No, they never end as tales," said Frodo. "But the people in them come, and go when their part's ended. Our part will end later, or sooner."5

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0Our present tale begins in 1825, when James DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island resigned his position as a United States Senator. A uniquely colorful figure, DeWolf was a privateer in the War of 1812 who went on to make a fortune in the slave trade, and, at one point, owned three sugar plantations in Cuba, a textile mill in Rhode Island and many other ventures. He was the Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, but gave that position up to seek national office. However, he stepped down without finishing his term. He later was re-elected to the Rhode Island House of Representatives.[6]Little is known of his reasoning in resigning the Senate seat (though some think it had to do with his involvement in the slave trade and the rising support for abolition among his constituents), but one account offers this speculation:

But the slow progress of congressional legislation was distasteful to his active brain, his own ever-increasing business demanded more and more of his time, and he resigned his seat before his term had expired. Until his death he continued to represent Bristol in the Rhode Island Legislature.7

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0Whatever the reason, an election was held to pick his replacement. Asher Robbins ran against Elisha R. Potter and won, forty-three to thirty-six. Senate elections in those days, prior to the enactment of the 17th amendment in 1913, were conducted by the legislatures of the several states. In Rhode Island, that meant the bicameral legislature sitting jointly as the Grand Committee.8 Robbins was a member of the Adams party, whereas Potter was a Federalist. This is all worth remembering today, not least because this election led to the decision of the Rhode Island Supreme Court in Stoddard v. Martin, which is a tale about the intersection of money and politics.

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0Evidently, Martin Stoddard and Wheeler Martin made a fifty dollar wager on whether Robbins or Potter would win. Both men wrote out checks for fifty dollars, payable to the other, and these checks were given to a stakeholder. Bear in mind, by some measures, the economic status of fifty dollars from 1825 would be $32,000 in current terms.9 Robbins won the election, and Stoddard won the bet. He proceeded to Eagle Bank with his check and the cashier refused to pay on it. The decision does not reveal the basis of the cashier's refusal. Stoddard then made demand upon Martin and, not getting his satisfaction, sued on the bet. The case was tried before the Supreme Court, sitting with a jury. Rhode Island did not create what is now known as the Superior Court until 1905. The jury ruled that Stoddard had won the bet, but the legal issue of the enforceability of the bet fell to the Court.

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0Neither Stoddard nor Martin were members of the legislature, and thus...

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