• Cheryl Anne Stapp

Chief Justice Hugh Murray


Hugh Campbell Murray was—and still is—the youngest chief justice of the California Supreme Court the state has ever had. He was twenty-seven when he became chief justice in March 1852, by right of seniority, upon the resignation of then-chief justice Henry Lyons. The previous October, when Governor John McDougal had made Murray an associate justice of the Supreme Court to replace resigning Nathaniel Bennett, he had been the youngest associate justice ever appointed, albeit in a very new state of the Union where the majority of its male population was under 35.


Hugh was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in April 1825. His family moved to Alton, Illinois when he was a child, and he was educated at Shurtleff College, a Baptist liberal arts seminary in Alton. After graduating from Shurtleff, he began studying law with a local attorney until his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. In March 1847, Hugh Murray was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 14th Infantry, U.S. Army. Six months after the conflict ended, with the fall of Mexico City in September 1847, Murray resigned his commission and made his way back home. After completing his legal studies he was admitted to the Illinois bar, but never practiced law there, because early in 1849 he departed for California to join the Great Gold Rush. He took the Panama route, but unfortunately the ship he boarded after crossing the Isthmus only went as far north as Cabo San Lucas. Hugh and his companions finally reached San Francisco in September 1849, where he quickly established a lucrative law practice and gained a large circle of friends. His rise to positions of prominence was swift: in January 1850 the tall and bony, bearded Hugh Murray was elected a member of the city’s town council; and four months later, in April, was made a judge of the San Francisco Superior Court, at which time he ended his private law practice. He held the Superior Court position for 18 months, until his appointment to the California Supreme Court. In 1855, he was elected by popular vote to a full six year term on the High Court.


Murray’s contemporaries’ opinions of his character and personal qualities differ. His friends found him quite convivial, but at least one political enemy called him “the meanest chief justice ever.” Someone who knew him well said he had a patient and powerful mind, capable of the severest investigation. Be that as it may, his opinions were generally short; most cases turning on a single question of law. As was common in his time—though his own feelings were extreme—Murray was a blatant racist. He was also an inveterate gambler, and a heavy drinker, which didn’t stop him from issuing scathing opinions denouncing both vices. He had a fiery temper. Chief Justice Hugh Murray died at age 32 of consumption (tuberculosis) September 18, 1857, still a bachelor. He is buried in Sacramento’s Historic City Cemetery.

© 2019 by Cheryl Anne Stapp. 

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