Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals, 1870
by Jason C. Rubinstein
Although John A.1 Lott served as a constitutional member of the Court of Appeals for only six full months in 1870, he had a longer association with the Court, both as an ex officio member in 1861 and 1869 and as Chief Commissioner of the Commission on Appeals from 1870 to 1875. In these roles, he contributed 149 majority opinions to the New York Reports.
Lott was born in Flatbush, now part of Brooklyn, on February 11, 1806 as the only son of Abraham and Maria Lott. He traced his descent to Engelbert Lott, who, with his family, immigrated to New York from Holland in 1680 and moved to Flatbush two years later, in 1682. John’s great-grandfather, Johannis E. Lott, served as the first Surrogate of King County, assuming that office in 1787. He also sat as County Judge in 1793. John’s grandfather, Jeremiah Lott, assumed the Surrogate’s office in 1814.
Lott received his preliminary education at Flatbush Academy and attended Union College in Schenectady, from which he was graduated with honors in 1825. After graduating, Lott studied law in the offices of Henry E. Warner for three years, before beginning his practice in New York City. In 1829, he married his cousin, Catherine L. Lott. Lott returned to Brooklyn in 1835, entering into a partnership with Henry C. Murphy. The following year, Judge John Vanderbilt joined Lott’s and Murphy’s firm as a partner.
The law firm of Lott, Murphy & Vanderbilt gained statewide prominence. Its principals, all Democrats, controlled federal patronage in Brooklyn, including the Navy Yard (Murphy was Brooklyn’s mayor from 1842-1843). Democratic politicians regularly congregated at the firm’s offices, and, according to the New York Times, its partners “dictated all the local Democratic nominations and had great weight in the councils of the Democratic Party in the State” (Two Noted Jurists Dead, NY Times, July 21, 1878, at 12). Although Lott was, no doubt, steeped in Brooklyn political intrigue, his law partners, Murphy and Vanderbilt – if contemporary sources are to be credited – took to politics with an even greater avidity than he. Lott, meanwhile, “attended assiduously to the law business” (id.). The firm of Lott, Murphy & Vanderbilt survived for over two decades. After Murphy was appointed as United States Minister to the Hague, it became Lott & Vanderbilt.
In 1838, Governor William L. Marcy (1786-1867), a Democrat, appointed Lott as the first Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Kings County. He sat on that bench until 1842. In 1842, he represented Kings County in the Assembly, and served a senior member of the Committee of Ways and Means and as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. In 1843, Lott joined the State Senate, where he served four years and chaired the Committee on Ways and Means. Lott was elected Justice of the Supreme Court for the Second Judicial District in 1857, to fill an unexpired term. Two years later, running unopposed, Lott won reelection as Justice of the Supreme Court, a position he held until December 1869.
Lott was appointed an ex officio Judge of the Court of Appeals in 1861 and again in 1869. He was elected in his own right as Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals on November 2, 1869. His most meaningful contributionsCand his focus while on the Court – lie in the area of commercial law. Thus, in Justice v. Lang (42 NY 493 ), he determined that a party that signed a contract was estopped from denying that the contract was validly executed under the statute of frauds, even when it was not signed by the party suing for performance. In Kunzze v. American Exchange Fire Ins Co. (41 NY 412 ), Lott held that, when the insured transferred to a new building an insurance policy insuring goods against fire and damage, the goods remained insured even though they had not been moved to the new location. He reasoned that the fact that the insured “‘wanted the policy transferred to cover the goods in the new building,’ clearly shows that the object was to continue the insurance on them after their removal, and appears to me to repel the idea they should be uninsured, in the meantime, while remaining in the place they were in when first insured” (id. at 415). Although Lott’s writings often exhibit a sense of fair play, some of his opinions reveal a somewhat sterner side. In one of his few dissents, Lott objected to the Court’s holding that “the right of the traveler to recover of the carrier for lost baggage is not limited to such apparel or other articles as he expected to use” on the journey, but to other baggage as well (Dexter v. Syracuse, Binghamton and New York Railroad Co., 42 NY 326, 331 ).
Lott’s tenure on the Court ended on July 4, 1870 when the Court of Appeals, as instituted under the Constitution of 1847, was abolished by an 1869 constitutional amendment. That same amendment created a new Court of Appeals, as well as a Commission on Appeals, which was designed to relieve the new Court of its predecessor’s backlog. Lott won appointment to the latter tribunal, and was elected by his fellow members as its Chief Commissioner. Under the 1869 amendment, the new Court of Appeals was required to assume jurisdiction over appeals taken after January 1, 1870. The Commission, meanwhile, retained jurisdiction over appeals taken before this date. For these appeals – drawn from the former Court of Appeals’ docket of 800 unresolved cases – the Commission constituted the highest judicial tribunal in the State, and its decisions had the same force as those of the new Court of Appeals, at least in a formal sense. In practice, the Commission maintained an ambivalent position and its members generally sought to avoid conflict with their brethren on the Court of Appeals.
Originally intended to terminate in 1873, the Commission’s life was extended by an 1872 constitutional amendment for another two years. The 1872 amendment also enlarged the Commission’s jurisdiction to hear up to 500 appeals taken between 1870 and 1872, as assigned by the Court of Appeals. The Commission’s life, and Lott’s term, expired on July 1, 1875.
After leaving the bench, Lott remained active in public affairs. In 1875, Governor Samuel Tilden appointed him to a committee to draft uniform laws establishing “home rule” for municipalities throughout the State. Lott also became involved in the business world, as president of the Flatbush, Coney Island, Park and Concourse Railroad Company. In 1878, he oversaw that company’s merger with the Coney Island and East River Railroad Company and became president of the new entity, the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island Railroad Company. With a capitalization of $1 million, the new company undertook the construction of both a new railroad route to Coney Island and a luxury hotel on the island’s Concourse. Due to failing health, Lott submitted his resignation on June 4, 1878. By all accounts, he left the company’s finances in sound condition, with the new hotel and railroad nearing completion.
Shortly thereafter, on July 20, 1878, Lott collapsed and died in his Flatbush residence. His passing was unexpected: when he awoke that morning, Lott had a hearty breakfast, completed some business on behalf of the Flatbush Board of Improvement, of which he was president, and reported to his physician that he felt unusually well. He died suddenly around 10:00 a.m. Funeral services took place at the Reformed Dutch Church in Flatbush, and Lott’s remains were interred at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Judge Lott was survived by five children, Abraham Lott, Abby Lloyd Lott, John Zabriskie Lott, Mary “Maria” Jane Lott, and Jeremiah Lott. Following his father’s lead, Abraham Lott became Surrogate of Kings County. Abby married John B. Zabriskie. Her great-grandson (John A. Lott’s great-great-grandson), John L. Zabriskie, Jr. was formerly Chief Executive Officer of Upjohn and Vice Chairman of Merck. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts. Maria Lott married Freeman Clarkson. Her great-grandson (John A. Lott’s great-great-grandson), John Clarkson, is an Assistant Comptroller of the State of New York.
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.
Bergen, The History of the New York Court of Appeals, 1847-1932, at 116-119 (1985).
Coney Island Changes, NY Times, March 10, 1878, at 2.
Funeral of Ex-Judge Lott, NY Times, July 24, 1878, at 8.
John A. Lott: A Glance at His Career, Brooklyn Eagle, July 15, 1883, at 3.
John A. Lott, 18 Alb L J 79 (1878-1879).
John A. Lott, Brooklyn Eagle, July 24, 1878, at 4.
Lott’s Demise, Brooklyn Eagle, January 14, 1889, at 6.
McAdam, Bischoff, et al., History of the Bench and Bar of New York, at 407 (1897).
Proctor, The bench and the bar of Kings County, N.Y. and the bench and the bar of the city of Brooklyn, 1686-1884: with legal biographies, etc., at 16-18 (1884).
Resigned. Judge John A. Lott from the Presidency of the B., F. & C. I. Railroad, Brooklyn Eagle, June 12, 1878, at 4.
Two Noted Jurists Dead, NY Times, July 21, 1878, at 12.
To date, we are not aware of any published writings by Judge Lott.
- From the names of Judge Lott’s father and eldest son-both “Abraham”- we surmise that Judge John A. Lott’s middle name was also Abraham.