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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 14, No. 1
March, 1936

By A. G. C. Bierer

Page 49


The life of Judge John Hazelton Cotteral is a shining example of a man who, with only a highschool education, with an early interrupted college training that may be disregarded because of its early interruption, wrote his own name at the top of Oklahoma's great lawyers and attained the highest judicial position ever occupied by an Oklahoman, and then filled that position with the highest credit and the finest ability.

Judge Cotteral was born at Middletown, Indiana, September 26, 1864. He came from some of America's finest stock, his grandfather being Chauncey H. Burr, who was a charter member of the town company which organized the municipality where judge Cotteral was born. At 11 years of age, he removed to New Castle, the county seat, upon the election of his father, William W. Cotteral, to the office of County Auditor, an office which he held for eight years. After graduation from high school, Judge Cotteral entered the regular college course of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, but, owing to family reverses, caused, as often happens, by putting too much financial trust in a trusted friend, Cotteral was compelled to give up this college course before graduation. He removed with his parents and brothers and sister to Western Kansas in 1884, where his father took a homestead on government land in what is now Gray County in that State. Cotteral, with his brother-in-law, the late Hon. Milton Brown, went to Garden City, Kansas, soon after that, where Cotteral was admitted to the bar. They were engaged in the practice of law when the writer of this article met them and where immediately the law firm of Brown; Bierer & Cotteral was formed. This law firm so actively and successfully pursued the practice in all the counties of Southwestern Kansas until the blighting hot winds of 1887 and 1888—which would make those of that region in the 1930's look like pastime—made Bierer and Cotteral look for a more promising region in which to practice law, and so they came to Guthrie, Oklahoma, in the same berth; in the

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same tourist sleeping car on April 22, 1889. Bierer and Cotteral, one of the early law firms of Guthrie, Oklahoma, practiced law together for a short time, until A. G. C. Bierer was appointed by President Cleveland as Justice of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma Territory in January, 1894.

Judge Cotteral, without the advantages of what we call a school education, was thoroughly equipped for the high judicial position to which he attained, for he knew from the beginning the foundation for the commonwealth of Oklahoma, which he so highly honored, and which commenced with original titles both in Kansas and in Oklahoma. Western Kansas was Government and Indian reservation land when he helped the pioneers to select their claims and perfect their titles to these lands and organize the local governments, municipalities, counties, schools and churches which housed their municipal rights as well as their religious beliefs.

Coming to Guthrie, Oklahoma, on the natal day of the opening of the first part of this commonwealth to white settlement made him again familiar at first-hand with its titles, its customs, and helped him to grow to the stature he attained, with its trials, its tribulations and its final magnificent development.

Notwithstanding Cotteral's misfortune which deprived him of the opporunity to obtain a legal education in college, he did attain such legal education in and by being one of the pioneers in the development and establishment of law and order and thus commonwealths in both Kansas, where he was one of its western pioneers, and in Oklahoma, where he was not only by date but by attainments one of its first citizens. His early practice of law in Western Kansas was concerning the land titles. There he was engaged in many noted cases and trials. This made his services in that line naturally sought in Oklahoma, and it was but a few hours from the first day of his landing at Guthrie that his fine services in that line were sought by those who became foremost litigants for the Oklahoma land titles, and this prepared him for the high position he was a little later to occupy on the Federal Bench, just as such an early day experience by Justice Stephen Johnson Field in 1850, at the opening of the gold fields of Cali-

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fornia, qualified him for his becoming one of the greatest of American jurists and making the longest and one of the finest records on the Supreme Court of the United States. The fine record which Judge Cotteral made as a land lawyer both in Kansas and in Oklahoma, and his high standing as a lawyer in the courts of Kansas and Oklahoma, following, concurrent with, and connected with the acquisition of the original titles to these lands both in the Land Department and its branches and in the courts when they acquired jurisdiction of the subject matter, all with his usual success, naturally placed his name in first place for preferment and appointment by President Theodore Roosevelt to the United States District Judgeship for the Western District of Oklahoma at Statehood on November 16, 1907. In which position he so advanced himself in the esteem of his fellowmen and the bench and the bar that it followed naturally that he was on May 28, 1928, appointed and placed by President Coolidge in the office of Circuit Judge of the Eighth Federal Circuit, which gave him the position of Circuit Judge of the Tenth Judicial Circuit when that was later provided by Congress. This position rounded out Judge Cotteral's legal and judicial positions, commencing with his pioneering as a lawyer in Western Kansas and in Oklahoma, advancing as he did to the pioneer jurist in Oklahoma, in all of which he made a spotless record of the highest intelligence, the purest integrity, and grandest impartiality—three qualities that will ever make his name honored and revered by everyone who knew and associated with him, or who will read the record after him. The history of Oklahoma cannot be written without recording Judge John Hazelton Cotteral as its foremost jurist, and without saying of him and the service he rendered his beloved Nation, as well as his beloved State, as the Master said of his servant of old "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."

Judge Cotteral's place in the judicial sphere is not confined to his ability and attainment as a lawyer and a jurist, for with these, he possessed the highest appreciation of our American Constitution and the duty of every citizen, as well as every Executive and every Legislator and every Judge, to uphold and be bound by it as the supreme law of our land. He well believed that our courts were the constituted power to interpret its terms when-

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ever and wherever questioned; he believed that when the Courts had spoken it was the duty of constituted officers—executive, legislative and judicial—to observe their orders and decrees; he believed that resort to military force was the last and never the first remedy, and bad no place in our Government, Nation or State unless the courts were defied by others than those whose duty it was to enforce the law. When the angel of death kissed his eyelids with eternal slumber on April 22, 1933, exactly forty-four years to the day after that natal day, when he first crossed the border of Oklahoma, it took from his and our adopted and beloved state the highest interpreter of that law and Constitution ever ordained as an Oklahoma official and citizen and one of its finest men.

Judge Cotteral was a profound example of the old and true virtue of personal honesty, personal industry, and personal intelligence; which achieved fame, fortune and honor in his day and generation for the self-educated and self-made man, of which he was one of the finest and most shining examples.

Judge Cotteral was not only an eminent jurist. He was a man of noble and manly qualities and attainments. He was a lover of the good, the beautiful, and the true. He loved and cherished his friends, he despised only pretense, evasion and untruth. He was a lover of justice and truly felt and acted on and off the bench that "For justice all place a temple and all season summer."

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