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Jane Ahlin, Published August 21 2011

Ahlin: Davies case from Lisbon, ND, got all the way to high court

The week’s events associated with the opening of Davies High School affirm the importance of the court system to our nation’s democratic ideals. People don’t have to reach the same level of education, belong to the same religion, or agree politically to get along in a democracy. However, if citizens don’t have confidence – instinctive confidence – in the integrity of the judicial process and the impartiality of the judiciary, any notion of equality under the law is undermined. Thus, democracy is undermined.

Sometimes – as in the case of the “Little Rock Nine” – in order for long-standing injustice toward a large group of people to be righted, judicial rulings become part of cultural upheaval by forcing change. Other times, questioned legal principles are obscure and unrelated to everyday life, rulings that thrill only legal scholars. And then there are times when rulings in a case intensely personal verify the human face of justice. Such was the nature of a case presided over by Judge Ronald N. Davies in federal district court in Fargo and decided by jury in 1957 – the very same year Judge Davies was assigned to the Little Rock desegregation case. This case was Dick v. New York Life.

In a 2009 article written for the “Journal of Supreme Court History” by the Honorable Myron H. Bright, senior judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, an article also carried last February in the North Dakota State Bar Association’s publication, The Gavel, Bright pointed out how unlikely it was for Dick v. New York Life to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. Certainly the case could not clarify a constitutional question; instead, it was “a simple insurance case” of disputed facts. The case was filed by the widow of a man named William Dick. The insurance company insisted that Dick’s death was a suicide, not an accident. Indeed, a coroner’s jury had concluded the death was a suicide. New York Life would pay $7,500 in death benefits but not double indemnity.

Enter the lawyers: Don Holand and Philip Vogel for Mrs. Dick and Norman Tenneson for New York Life – three men now deceased who were accomplished attorneys and friends and whose legal legacies still live on today. Holand, a Lisbon, N.D., attorney took the case first and called in Vogel when the case was moved to federal district court.

Money wasn’t their object. Even back then, $15,000 wasn’t a large insurance payout. And yet, the case was confounding. William Dick, who was neither depressed nor in any difficulty, was found by his wife “lying on his back in a pool of blood in the silage shed. [His] double barrel shotgun which he kept loaded in the shed because of animal attacks on his livestock was on the floor nearby as was a screwdriver that [he] used to open the silage shed’s broken door.” Stranger still, “Dick had been hit by pellets from two shotgun shells: one discharge entered his chest and was not immediately fatal; the other entered his head, killing him instantly.”

It was Holand who came up with a plausible theory as to how the two shots fired separately could have been accidental – bizarre and accidental – and the jury was convinced. Tenneson, on behalf of New York Life, moved for a directed verdict before jury deliberations “on the grounds that the evidence was insufficient to make the issue one of fact.” Judge Davies denied both that motion and also a later motion that the jury verdict for Mrs. Dick be set aside. The verdict stood.

New York Life appealed to the Eighth Circuit, where the three-judge panel found the opposite and set aside the jury verdict. Mrs. Dick’s lawyers then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in her favor, likely in large part because North Dakota law makes jury verdicts hard to negate. Judge Bright notes that “courts across the land have cited the case about 150 times, including 21 citations in the U.S. Supreme Court,” and that its most important point is “the central role of the jury in our judicial system.”

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion for the majority, and Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote the dissent, in which he decried taking Supreme Court time for “trivial cases.” However, as Philip Vogel evidently told Judge Bright, it wasn’t trivial to Mrs. Dick. Over 50 years later, her victory remains justice well-served and very human.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.