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Charles Doe was a prominent nineteenth-century jurist, serving as chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court from 1876 until his death in 1896. Doe has been regarded by legal historians as one of the greatest judges in U.S. history but he remains an obscure figure. He is best remembered for his procedural reforms, which sought to overcome burdensome Common Law practices that filled the legal landscape with many pitfalls.
Doe was born in 1830 in Derry, New Hampshire. He came from a wealthy and prominent family, and thus it was not surprising that he would matriculate at Dartmouth College. After graduating in 1849 he studied law with a New Hampshire lawyer for several years. At this time in the United States most aspiring lawyers "read the law" as Doe did, apprenticing themselves until they were ready to take the state bar exam. Doe passed the New Hampshire bar exam in 1852 and began a private law practice in Dover. During the 1850s, he also served as the county solicitor and assistant clerk to the New Hampshire State Senate.
In 1859, at the age of 29, Doe was appointed an associate justice to the New Hampshire Supreme Judicial Court. At this point in the state's history the Supreme Judicial Court functioned as both a trial and appellate court. Doe spent much of his time riding circuit and hearing cases. Before the Civil War he left the Democratic Party over the party's pro-slavery position and joined the Republican Party. This action temporarily hurt his judicial career when the court was dissolved in 1874 by the Democratic state legislature. He spent two years in private practice before the 1876 state constitutional convention created a new Supreme Court and a Republican administration named him chief justice. He would serve for the next 20 years in this capacity.
Though personally eccentric (he dressed in the clothes of a farmer instead of judicial garb and insisted that the courtroom window be removed during frigid winter weather), Doe distinguished himself as a jurist. He was primarily concerned with simplifying and codifying court procedures and the rules of evidence. He did not develop a judicial philosophy but subscribed to New England Yankee "practicality." Doe ignored court precedents, which are the bedrock of the common law, to adopt simplified procedures. In addition, he was the first judge to abandon the common law rule that required a new criminal trial if any prejudicial error was found. Instead, Doe stated that a new trial should be limited to only the issues in which the error had occurred. In the realm of evidence rules, Doe dispensed with many exclusionary rules and placed as much information before the jury as possible. He did so out of respect for the wisdom of the jury.
Doe died in 1896 in Rollinsford, New Hampshire, having spent 35 years on the state's highest court.
"Doe of New Hampshire: Reflections on a Nineteenth Century Judge." 1950. Harvard Law Review.