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Abner Lipscomb - Texas Supreme Court Justice


NOTE - This article appeared in the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society's newsletter.

THE TEXAS STATE CEMETERY has been a burial ground for distinguished politicians and soldiers since the mid-1850s, but it fell into disrepair and disuse in the latter half of the 20th Century. In 1994, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock initiated a project to add a visitor center and renovate the Cemetery as a place of honor for Texas greats. In 1997, it was rededicated and reopened to the public.

The Cemetery has been a place of burial for distinguished judges and lawyers since 1856, when Texas Supreme Court Justice Abner Smith Lipscomb became the second person buried there. Today, many district judges, intermediate-appellate court judges, Supreme Court Justices, and Attorneys General are interred within Cemetery grounds.

The first man buried at the Texas State Cemetery was a soldier and Vice President of the Republic of Texas. Edward Burleson was no lawyer; he was a surveyor and frontiersman, a Texas Ranger, and the man who helped survey Waterloo (now Austin), San Marcos, and a few other cities. He also fought at San Jacinto. As a member of the Republic Congress, Burleson helped draft and pass the laws of the Republic. Lipscomb helped enforce them.

Abner Lipscomb was a sitting Texas Supreme Court Justice when he died in Austin in December 1856 at the age of 67. His judicial career had spanned almost four decades in two states. Born in Abbeville District, South Carolina in February 1789, he had an eye on the practice of law from an early age. He studied law with fellow Abbeville native son John C. Calhoun. Lipscomb was admitted to the Bar at the age of 21 and was appointed a judge in Alabama when he was still just 30 years old. It is easy to lose historical perspective on men who practiced law in nineteenth-century Texas, and all too often we think of them, if at all, as mere precedents in a text or bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation.

Rather than permit the memory of Judge Lipscomb to fade, we should seek to understand him as a man of his era, a frontiersman and pioneer who also dedicated his life to advancing the Rule of Law in Texas. Just after he was admitted to the Alabama Bar, Lipscomb picked up a rifle and fought in the War of 1812. He spent much of the war fighting either the Creek or the Muscogee in and around Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. He practiced law in the chaotic border region between the established states of the Union and the bleeding edge of the Western frontier, and made a name for himself in that region. When the young United States annexed Alabama, Lipscomb was appointed circuit judge. Under the laws of Alabama at that time, an appointment as a circuit judge meant that a man served on the Alabama

Supreme Court. It also meant travel. Circuit judges often rode on horseback to communities needing their service, and they carried pistols in their saddlebags right next to their law books. Just four years after his appointment as a circuit judge, Lipscomb was appointed Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. He served for a dozen years as Chief Justice and then one term in the Alabama Legislature before he left for Texas in 1839. It was still a dangerous journey despite Texas’s recently won independence, and Lipscomb was no spring chicken. Too often, we picture judges and lawyers out of their time, safe in a courtroom and away from battles and the violence of the frontier. Lipscomb was a man of his times, a man who needed to be able to fight for what he believed in as well as for his life. He passed through hostile territory on his journey to Texas. The Creek, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, and the Cherokee were all still living in the Mississippi, Louisiana, and East Texas areas and held little love for Americans traveling through their lands.

Lipscomb made it to Texas and settled near Stephen F. Austin’s original colony in Washington County. It was not long before President Mirabeau B. Lamar tapped the newly arrived Lipscomb to serve as his Secretary of State, which he did for about a year. He was an ardent supporter of Texas’s annexation and worked toward that goal until 1845 when he helped prepare the annexation papers. In 1846 Governor James Pinckney Henderson appointed Lipscomb as an Associate Justice on the first Texas Supreme Court after statehood. Texas voters elected and re-elected him to the Court in 1851 and 1856. Lipscomb died in office in 1856 and was buried not far from Edward Burleson, starting a tradition of Texas Supreme Court Justices being buried at the Cemetery.

What qualifies a person for burial at the State Cemetery today? Traditionally, burial at the Cemetery was reserved for statesmen who died in office, hence Burleson and Lipscomb, but it has evolved into something more. The Cemetery’s governing statute is found in sections 256(d) and (e) of the Texas Government Code.

Those automatically eligible for plots at the State Cemetery are statewide elected officials from district judge to governor, excluding county judges or other county officials. A statutory sub-clause also allows cultural figures to be buried at the Cemetery. Authors such as Fred Gipson, scientists like Stephen Weinberg, astronaut Gene Cernan, and baseball player Willie Wells all qualify as cultural figures. One needs to have made “a significant contribution to Texas history” in a selected field. A three-member committee must vote on the prospective cultural candidate. The committee itself is comprised of individuals nominated by the governor, the lieutenant governor, and the speaker of the house.

Statutory qualification for burial within the State Cemetery alone does not make a historical figure memorable. Too many times, a person’s life is boiled down to bullet points on a resume. Justice of the Texas Supreme Court is certainly an impressive bullet point to have. However, when looking only at the one bullet point, you lose the fact that Justice Lipscomb was a war hero, was an Alabama Supreme Court justice at 30, and served as the Texas Republic’s Secretary of State for a time as well.

If you want a nice break from downtown Austin’s chaos or want to have a pleasant Saturday, walk amongst the headstones at the Cemetery and look for the rest of the bullet points besides “Supreme Court Justice.” In the spring, when the weather is nice, it can be a perfect day. But no matter what the bullet points say, a person is always something more than a Supreme Court Justice or a Senator.


- Will Erwin