Like many Supreme Court Justices, Willis Van Devanter had been an executive-branch lawyer before being nominated to the Court. He served as Assistant Attorney General for the Department of the Interior from 1897-1900.
Van Devanter moved to Wyoming in 1884, shortly after his graduation from the Cincinnati Law School. He became active in Republican politics, winning election as Cheyenne city attorney and then to the state legislature. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison made the 30-year-old Van Devanter Chief Justice of the Wyoming Territorial Supreme Court, though he returned to his more lucrative private practice almost immediately after Wyoming became a state one year later. In 1896, Van Devanter successfully argued Ward v. Race Horse (a Native American hunting-rights case) on behalf of Wyoming in the Supreme Court. His prominence in the Wyoming Republican Party and his expertise in the law of railroads, Western land claims, and Native American tribes won Van Devanter a job in the McKinley administration.
Here’s President McKinley’s March 19, 1897 nomination of Van Devanter to serve as Assistant Attorney General for the Department of the Interior:
The 1897 Annual Report of the Secretary of the Interior afford a detailed glimpse into the nature of Van Devanter’s office:
- The duties of the office of the Assistant Attorney-General consist mainly of the examination of cases brought before the Department on appeal from the Commissioner of the General Land Office, involving all questions relating to the disposal of the public domain under the numerous laws pertaining to homestead, preemption, or timber-culture entries, mineral lands, desert lands, swamp lands, school lands, railroad grants, etc. In order to formulate decisions upon these questions for the signature of the Secretary, the assistant attorneys in this office are called upon to examine the records in these cases, amounting frequently to hundreds and sometimes thousands of pages, and to familiarize themselves with the laws of the Supreme Court and previous departmental decisions bearing upon the questions involved. Many of the cases present difficult questions of law, calling for intelligent and painstaking research.
- This work has during the past year been especially difficult and onerous, on account of the unprecedented number of records containing very voluminous transcripts of testimony and presenting important and closely contested legal propositions. An unusually large number of motions for review, usually incident to a change of Administration, have been filed and disposed of during the last eight months. In addition to these matters, a considerable number of questions pertaining to other bureaus and branches of this Department have been referred to the Assistant Attorney-General for his opinion.
- The number of assistant attorneys in this office is not sufficient to dispose of the great volume of work which comes before the office, and the compensation provided for some of them is not commensurate with either the amount of work to be done or the ability and learning required.