From 1930 through 1932, Samuel Seabury turned away from his flourishing law practice in New York City to lead an investigation, the first of several such investigations, into the New York Magistrates’ Courts. When, at the conclusion of his investigation, the Appellate Division, First Department authorized $75,000 in compensation for his great service to the City, Seabury responded with a private letter to the court exemplifying his commitment to reform and strength of character:
I have considered the willingness of the court expressed to me by you to allow me $75,000 as compensation for my services while acting as referee to the appellate division in the conduct of the investigation into the magistrates’ courts, which continued from September, 1930, to March, 1932. I prefer, however, to give my services without any charge to the City of New York as a contribution to the profession of which I have the honor to be a member rendered in the effort to remedy the gross injustices which prevailed in that court.
Judge Seabury, as he was called throughout most of his life, was perhaps most famous for his role in another investigation, as counsel to the Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate the Affairs of New York City, which led to the removal of the Sheriff of New York County and the resignation of Mayor James J. Walker. Given his family lineage, however, Seabury was just as likely to have found fame through the Episcopal Church as through the courtroom. His great-great-grandfather – and namesake – was the first Episcopal Bishop in the United States and a highly respected figure. The Judge’s father, William Jones Seabury, was also a man of the cloth. Interestingly, William Seabury was admitted to the New York bar but practiced for only a few years before becoming Reverend Seabury and turning his attention to the church. He served as rector of the Church of the Annunciation in New York City and a seminary professor.
Into this lineage Samuel Seabury was born on February 22, 1873. The son of the Reverend and Alice Van Wyck Beare Seabury, he was raised in the New York City neighborhood around 14th Street. Due to his family’s limited financial resources, Seabury’s education began in his father’s study with the Reverend serving as instructor or, perhaps more accurately, as guide to his young son’s natural curiosity. Eventually, Seabury’s formal education moved out of the study. He attended the Trinity School and then William & Kellogg high school for boys. After high school, he worked in the Law Office of Stephen P. Nash and as a digester for legal publishers. Seabury put himself through New York Law School, graduating in 1893. He was admitted to the bar the next year and established a partnership – Seabury & Pickford – with another recent graduate, Sherman Pickford.
During these early years of Seabury’s legal career, New York City was largely controlled by Tammany Hall. Seabury quickly became involved in reform politics as a devotee of the Single Tax movement, the idea that all taxation should be on the land, and a protégée of its leader, Henry George. Seabury joined the Manhattan Single Tax Club in 1894 and was elected president just three years later. That same year Henry George ran for Mayor of New York City on the reform ticket and Seabury dedicated himself to the campaign against Tammany dominance. Less than one week prior to the election, however, George passed away. Although the party quickly nominated his son as a replacement, the election was lost to Tammany.
After the campaign, Seabury turned his attention back to the law. As he worked to establish his practice, he took on a number of pro bono criminal cases to gain valuable experience. In 1898 he formed a new partnership, Morgan & Seabury. This time his partner was a former Judge, Bankson T. Morgan. The very next year, the 26-year-old Seabury made his own attempt at the judiciary, running on the Labor Party ticket for Judge of the City Court. Although he lost the election, the job would soon be his.
In between judicial campaigns, however, Seabury married Josephine Maud Richey. Born January 22, 1878, she was the youngest daughter of the Richey family, the Seaburys’ New York City neighbors. The marriage took place on June 6, 1900 and shortly thereafter the new husband once again threw his hat into the race for City Court Judge. In the fall of 1901, he ran once more, on the Citizens Union ticket. This time, however, the Bar Association endorsed his candidacy and he won. Thus, on January 1, 1902, 28-year-old Samuel Seabury was sworn into office.
In one of the notable cases from his time on the City Court, Johnston v. Mutual Reserve Life Ins. Co.,1 Judge Seabury had before him the validity of judgments rendered for several insureds in North Carolina against a New York insurance company. The defendant-insurer argued that the judgments were invalid because the North Carolina court lacked jurisdiction over it. Seabury, however, found that the company was doing business in North Carolina and was properly served pursuant to North Carolina law. Therefore, he concluded that the North Carolina courts had jurisdiction over the defendant and the judgments were properly rendered. He explained that
[t]he courts of this State have no right to arrogate to themselves the function of determining as to the wisdom or justice of legislation enacted in another State. Even the courts of the State where such legislation has been enacted have no such right except in so far as such legislation contravenes constitutional provisions. The courts of North Carolina having acquired jurisdiction of the person of the defendant, it is the duty of this court to give effect to the judgments recovered in that State by awarding judgments in favor of the plaintiffs in these actions.2
In addition to his caseload, Seabury – his reformer’s passion not lessened by his first political success – undertook an investigation into the City Court clerks. He determined that the clerks were stealing both Juror and Sheriff fees. As a result, all five clerks were eventually removed.
In 1905, while still serving on the City Court, Seabury met with William Randolph Hearst – the publishing magnate and son of former Senator George Hearst – who would briefly become a political ally. Hearst wanted to nominate Seabury as the Municipal Ownership League’s candidate for Mayor in the 1905 Mayor’s race. Seabury, however, did not want the nomination, and, at the League’s convention, orchestrated the nomination of Hearst in his place. Shortly thereafter Seabury was nominated for Justice of the Supreme Court.
The campaign was hard fought, but in the end Tammany defeated Hearst and Seabury. One year later, however, the governorship of New York was up for grabs and this time Hearst allied himself with Tammany. Ten Supreme Court Justice seats were also to be determined in the election and Seabury was nominated by the Independence League. On election day, Hearst lost to Hughes, a Republican, but Seabury won. Thus, at the age of 33, Seabury became a Supreme Court Justice.
Then, as now, Supreme Court Justices presided over a wide variety of cases. In one particularly interesting case, Fairmont Athletic Club v. Bingham,3 the plaintiff, a private athletic club, sought an injunction against the police commissioner preventing the police from forcibly entering the club without a warrant on mere suspicion that a misdemeanor was being committed or might be committed. The club gave weekly sparring exhibitions for its members and claimed that only members were permitted to attend these sessions. The police, however, alleged that the club was illegally charging a fee to those in attendance and thus they had the right to enter. Justice Seabury granted the injunction, explaining that:
[t]he duty of police officers, like all other public servants, is fixed and defined by law, and when they act contrary to this duty they become wrongdoers and violators of law. It is an essential characteristic of free government that every official is himself subject to the law, and that none is above it. At common law and under the statute law of this State a police officer has no right to arrest without warrant in cases of misdemeanor when the crime was not committed or attempted in his presence
If a police officer cannot without a warrant make an arrest for a misdemeanor unless it was committed or attempted to be committed in his presence, it follows a fortiori that he cannot break into private premises without a warrant to arrest for an alleged misdemeanor not committed or attempted in his presence. Police officers have no right to enter without a warrant upon private property, such as dwellings or club houses, because they suspect that misdemeanors are or may be committed therein.4
He further noted that “[i]t would be difficult to imagine a more odious form of oppression than this so-called right to search private premises to ascertain whether crimes are being committed.”5 Such decisions earned Seabury a reputation for being a fairminded Justice unafraid of the New York City establishment.
In the fall of 1913, the Progressive Party nominated Seabury for Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals and Learned Hand for Chief Judge. During his campaign, Seabury attacked the then sitting Court for what he deemed to be anti-labor and pro-monopoly decisions. As with his other judicial campaigns, Seabury was defeated the first time around. In 1915, however, he was again nominated by the Progressive party, this time along with the Democrats, and was elected Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals. Although he only served on the Court for approximately a year and a half, he wrote over 30 opinions.
In one opinion, People v. Shilitano,6 the question before the Court was whether witnesses’ affidavits recanting their testimony given on behalf of the People at trial, was newly discovered evidence entitling the defendant to a new trial. Seabury, writing for the Court in his clear, modern style, explained that the mere recantation of a prosecution witness, in and of itself, would not automatically justify a new trial for the defendant. Indeed, were it otherwise, “the power to grant a convicted defendant a new trial [would] rest not with the court but with the witnesses who testified against him upon the trial.”7 Seabury explained, however, that recantation should be “considered by the court in weighing the testimony upon which the defendant was convicted.”8 Thus, “whether or not a new trial should be granted must depend upon all the circumstances of the case, including the testimony of the witnesses for the People submitted on the motion for a new trial in which these witnesses recant the testimony which they gave upon the trial.”9
Seabury was also careful to make clear that the Court considered evidence of recantation after the trial to be newly-discovered evidence, rather than, as the People urged, merely evidence tending to impeach or discredit a witness. According to Seabury, “[e]vidence of recantation upon the part of a witness is not merely evidence which tends to impeach or discredit a witness. Its character is much more fundamental. If the recantation be true it may in certain cases destroy the basis upon which the judgment of conviction rests. . . .”10 Given the nature of the recantations at issue, however, the Court concluded that the defendant was not entitled to a new trial.
In another opinion, People ex rel Somerville v. Williams,11 Seabury, writing for a unanimous Court, considered “whether one who holds an office in the competitive class of the state civil service who is removed solely for political reasons is entitled to reinstatement.”12 Answering in the affirmative and reversing the Appellate Division, Seabury explained that the clear purpose of the Civil Service Law “was to require all appointments within the law to be based solely upon merit and not to be made as a reward for political and partisan services.”13 Thus, under the express provisions of section 25 of the Civil Service Law, there could be no question that someone removed for failure to make a political contribution was entitled to reinstatement. Accordingly, “[i]f reinstatement can be compelled where one is removed for his failure to make a contribution to a political party there can exist no reason for denying reinstatement to one who is removed in violation of other provisions of the same section which prohibit the removal for political reasons.”14 The employee was reinstated.
During his time on the Court, Seabury also came to know former President Theodore Roosevelt, a relationship that heavily influenced his decision to leave the Court. In private, Roosevelt is said to have encouraged Seabury to run for Governor. In 1916, Seabury did just that, receiving the Democratic nomination. Roosevelt’s private support, however, did not become public support and his Progressive party did not come out for Seabury. As a result, Seabury lost.
Thereafter, the 43-year-old Seabury returned to life as an attorney, eventually developing a very successful New York practice. His newfound wealth allowed him to purchase large amounts of land in East Hampton where he and his wife spent weekends and holidays. Although Seabury would never again hold elected office, the events for which he will be best remembered were still ahead of him.
In August 1930, Justice Finch, Acting Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, First Department, appointed Seabury to lead an investigation of New York City’s Magistrates’ Courts. This was the first of what would become known as the Seabury investigations. The Judge virtually shut down his lucrative private practice and recruited a team of young lawyers to assist in the investigation. Over 1,000 witnesses were interviewed in private and almost 300 took part in public hearings. The inquiry uncovered numerous instances of corruption, including the Vice Squad’s pervasive practice of framing innocent women as prostitutes, several of whom were eventually pardoned by Governor Franklin Roosevelt as a direct result of the investigation.
Seabury’s investigative technique was methodical and resulted in a number of Magistrate’s resignations. The investigation established that Magistrate positions were not awarded on the basis of merit, but rather as a reward for allegiance to Tammany, and that it was not uncommon for Tammany’s district leaders to intercede with the Magistrates on behalf of their friends. Seabury issued his final report to the First Department in March 1932 recommending, among other things, consolidation of the lower New York City courts.
During the course of the Magistrates’ investigation, Governor Roosevelt appointed Seabury to investigate the office of New York County District Attorney Thomas Crain. Given the obvious corruption in city government, civic groups charged that the D.A. was not fulfilling his mandate. Seabury’s investigation showed that Crain failed to prosecute numerous racketeering cases. He concluded, however, that, although Crain was largely incompetent, he was not corrupt. Thus, Seabury did not recommend his removal to the Governor and D.A. Crain kept his job.
In April 1931, Seabury also became counsel to the Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate the Affairs of New York City. This would be the third, last and largest of the Seabury investigations. Hearings continued for over a year until December of 1932. During the course of the investigation, which reached the highest levels of city government, over two thousand people were examined. One of the most well-known incidents occurred during Seabury’s public examination of New York’s Sheriff Farley. On the topic of how he managed to accumulate wealth far in excess of what would be reasonable given his annual salary, the Sheriff explained that the money came from his “wonderful” “tin box.” This “tin box” mantra was often repeated by other officials who were examined by Seabury and even found its way into popular culture.15 A different fate awaited Farley, however, who was removed from office by Governor Roosevelt.
Seabury’s investigation eventually focused on the Mayor of New York City, James Walker. Before examining the Mayor, Seabury and his team meticulously gathered his financial records. They found evidence suggesting that a group of politicians financed letters of credit to the Mayor in exchange for a bus concession. They also uncovered records indicating that the Mayor had a “tin box” of his own; a joint safe-deposit box held by the Mayor and his financial agent Russell Sherwood. Sherwood, however, conveniently “traveled” to Mexico before he could be examined.
In May 1932, Seabury’s showdown with the Mayor began. During several days of public hearings, Seabury sparred with the Mayor, who denied all allegations of impropriety and corruption. Seabury sent the transcripts of the testimony and his analysis to Governor Roosevelt, who presided over a hearing in Albany to determine whether to remove Walker. Seabury acted as prosecutor, but before Roosevelt could rule, Walker resigned in what was truly a culminating victory for Seabury. In December 1932, Seabury issued his final report and the investigations bearing his name came to close.
Having caused the resignation of one Mayor, however, Seabury eventually put his full energy into the election of another – Fiorello La Guardia. He was instrumental in the nomination and election of La Guardia, whose swearing-in took place in Seabury’s home. Throughout his mayorship, Seabury remained La Guardia’s political ally and unofficial advisor.
Along with his continued political activity, the Judge rebuilt his private practice, traveled the State lecturing and served as President of the New York State Bar Association. As he grew older and his pace naturally slowed, he spent more and more time in East Hampton. In July 1950, the Judge was devastated by the loss of his wife. He lived on another eight years, passing away on May 7, 1958.
Judge Seabury and his wife had no children.
This biography appears in The Judges of the New York Court of Appeals: A Biographical History, ed. Hon. Albert M. Rosenblatt (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007). It has not been updated since publication.
The vast majority of the information contained herein was culled from the comprehensive pages of Herbert Mitgang’s The Man Who Rode the Tiger, The Life and Times of Judge Samuel Seabury, J. B. Lippincott Company (1963).
Chambers, Samuel Seabury, A Challenge, The Century Co. (1932).
Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner’s Sons (1980).
Rowthorn, Samuel Seabury, The Seabury Press (1983).
Samuel Seabury Dies on L. I. at 85, New York Times (1958).
Taylor, Eminent Members of the Bench and Bar of New York (1943).
Published Writings and Speeches Include:
The New Federalism, An inquiry into the means by which social power may be so distributed between state and people as to insure prosperity and progress, E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. (1950).
Captain Henry Martin Beare (1760-1828), Life, Ancestry and Descendants, Lawyers Press (1938).
Address of Samuel Seabury at Woolsey Hall, Yale University: The fight for non-partisan government in New York City (1933).
Lawyer’s Influence upon Public Opinion (Law Series I, Lecture), University of Chicago Press (1933).
The Legislative Investigating Committee, 33 Colum. L. Rev. 1 (1933).
Address of Samuel Seabury at the Seventh Annual Meeting of the Members of the Jamestown Bar Association (1932).
Address of Samuel Seabury before the American Law Institute (1932).
Self Government and the Power of an Ideal, Hobert College Bulletin (1931).
Two Hundred and Seventy-five Years of East Hampton, Bartlett Orr Press (1926).
Law School and Progress in the Law, 1 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 29 (1924).
Address by Judge Samuel Seabury on the courts and legislation; Delivered at the Lawyers’ Club of Buffalo, New York (1915).
The Law and Practice of the City Court of the City of New York, Baker, Voorhis Co. (1907).
Municipal Ownership and Operation of Public Utilities in New York City, Municipal Ownership Publishing Co. (1905).
A Review of the Labor Laws Relative to the Rate of Wages and the Hours of Labor in the State of New York, E.R. Mantz (1901).
Law Syllabus on Corporation Law (coauthored with S. Sherman Pickford, L.L.B.) (1894).
Final Investigation Reports
In the Matter of the Investigation of the Departments of the Government of the City of New York, Pursuant to Joint Resolution Adopted by the Legislature of the State of New York (Dec. 27, 1932).
In the Matter of the Investigation of the Magistrates’ Courts in the First Judicial Department and the Magistrates thereof, and of Attorneys-at-Law Practicing in Said Courts. Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Judicial Department (March 28, 1932).
In the Matter of the Investigation, Under Commission Issued by the Governor of the State of New York, of Charges Made Against Honorable Thomas C. T. Crain, District Attorney of New York County (Aug. 31, 1931).
- 43 Misc 251 (1904).
- Id. at 266.
- 61 Misc 419 (1908).
- Id. at 421-422.
- Id. at 422.
- 218 NY 161 (1916).
- Id. at 169.
- Id. at 169-170.
- Id. at 170.
- 217 NY 40 (1916).
- Id. at 41.
- Id. at 44.
- Indeed, Seabury’s examination was eventually turned into a song for the musical Fiorello:
Mr. “X” may we ask you a question?/ It’s amazing, is it not/ That the city pays you slightly less than fifty bucks a week/ Yet you’ve purchased a private yacht!
[Witness] I am positive Your Honor must be joking./ Any working man can do what I have done./ For a month or two I simply gave up smoking, /And I put my extra pennies one by one into
[Chorus] A little tin box, a little tin box, / That a little tin key unlocks. / There is nothing unorthodox/ About a little tin box.