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History of the United States Attorney District of Kansas

The first United States Attorney for the District of Kansas was appointed prior to statehood, when on June 29, 1854, President Franklin Pierce (himself a former United States Attorney) appointed Andrew J. Isaacs (1854-1857) to this post. Isaacs was succeeded by over three dozen U.S. Attorneys, many of whom have played significant roles in the history of the state and the nation.

Prior to his appointment by President Lincoln, John Taylor Burris (1861) had been a member of the "Frontier Guard" who provided personal protection to President Lincoln. He served only a few months prior to resigning to serve in the Civil War. He was later a framer of the state's constitution and served as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Kansas. Robert Crozier (1861 - 1864) was the founder of the Leavenworth City Times and also served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Kansas, as did U.S. Attorney Albert H. Horton (1869 - 1873), who served as Chief Justice for nearly 20 years. Samuel Riggs (1867 - 1869) was one of the original trustees of the University of Kansas.

One of the most colorful U.S. Attorneys for the District of Kansas was Cyrus I. Schofield (1873). He was forced to resign from that position due to questionable financial transactions, and shortly thereafter found himself jailed in St. Louis on forgery charges. Upon his release, however, Schofield underwent a religious conversion and later became a well known minister and bible editor. His study Bible, the Schofield Bible, is still in wide circulation today.

George R. Peck (1874-1879), who was a veteran of Sherman's march to the sea, later served as president of the American Bar Association from 1905-1906. Isaac Lambert (1897 - 1901) was regarded as one of the best criminal attorneys in the region and served as defense counsel in the first murder trial in Oklahoma City following settlement of that state.

In 1916, U.S. Attorney Fred Robertson (1913-1921) had the task of prosecuting Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz," who was one of the most infamous criminals to appear in the federal courts of Kansas. Stroud was prosecuted for the murder of a Leavenworth prison guard. The guard was well liked, and several prisoners stepped forward to testify against Stroud for the murder. Under the laws of that time, however, federal prisoners were stripped of all civil rights and were ineligible to testify as witnesses in court. Moreover, Stroud had become known across the country and several people donated money for his defense. This difficult situation was thrust upon U.S. Attorney Robertson, who took his dilemma to President Woodrow Wilson. When Robertson called the prisoners as witnesses at Stroud's trial, defense counsel objected and cited the ineligible status of the prisoners. Robertson thereupon presented presidential pardons for each of the five witnesses, which qualified them to testify over the objections of Stroud's defense counsel. Robertson secured a conviction, and Stroud was sentenced to hang. President Wilson commuted the sentence to life in prison. Stroud vowed to kill Robertson if he were ever released. He was not released from prison, and Robertson lived until the age of 88 when he died a peaceful death in 1959.

Albert F. Williams (1921 - 1930), the longest serving U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas, had not been sure that the legal business would work out, so he studied the barber trade at the same time he studied law. Apparently his doubts about the profession were never entirely resolved, because after leaving office he began a successful drug company in Topeka.

Not until the appointment of Sardius M. Brewster (1930 - 1934) was a native born Kansan appointed to the office. Brewster later served as Attorney General for the State of Kansas and in both houses of the Kansas legislature.

W. Randolph Carpenter (1945 - 1948) served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives prior to his appointment and resigned his office to make an unsuccessful run for governor of the state of Kansas.

George Templar (1953 - 1954) also resigned his office to make an unsuccessful run for governor. He was later appointed as a federal district judge for the District of Kansas.

Newell A. George (1961 - 1968) had previously served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives, having been elected in 1959. His is also the only U.S. Attorney known to have managed a string of boxers, which he did on the side while practicing law in Kansas City in the 1930s.

Benjamin E. Franklin (1968 - 1969) was the first African-American to hold the post of U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas, and the time of his appointment was only the second African-American in the nation to hold the office. Franklin was later appointed as a United States Bankruptcy Judge for the District of Kansas, where he served until his death.

During the tenure of Robert J. Roth (1969 - 1975), the well-known case of the "Leavenworth Seven" was brought to trial. The case involved a July, 1973, riot by several prisoners of Leavenworth that resulted in the killing of a prison guard. Four of the prisoners were tried and convicted of the crime in 1974. The nine-week trial included testimony from 137 witnesses and, because of the violent propensity of the defendants, the U.S. Marshals used metal detectors to screen those entering the courtroom; marking the first such use in a federal trial. Another "first" which resulted from the Leavenworth Seven trial was the use of closed-circuit television to allow defendants, who repeatedly refused to conduct themselves appropriately in the courtroom, to view the proceedings from their cells. Other incidents during this notorious trial included a prisoner who lunged from the witness box for a juror in the adjacent jury box following his testimony, and the arrest of a Harvard law student who was acting as a legal assistant for the defense, for smuggling marijuana to the defendants.

James A. Buchele (1977 - 1981) was appointed a Kansas District Judge in Topeka. James J. Marquez (1981 - 1984) resigned the office to become general counsel for the United States Secretary of Transportation. Benjamin L Burgess, Jr., (1984 - 1989) was elected a Kansas District Judge in Wichita. 

Eric F. Melgren (2002 – 2008) was appointed as a federal judge for the District of Kansas.  He is only the second U.S. Attorney for the District to have been appointed an Article III federal judge along with George Templar mentioned previously.

Of significant note are several former Assistant United States Attorneys for the District of Kansas who have been appointed to the federal bench. Mary Beck Briscoe is currently a Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit; G. Thomas Van Bebber, Monti L. Belot, and Julie A. Robinson are Judges for the District of Kansas; Janice M. Karlin is a Bankruptcy Judge for the District of Kansas; Karen M. Humphreys is a Magistrate Judge for the District of Kansas; and Nancy Caplinger is a Kansas Supreme Court Judge.

The United States Attorneys office of the District of Kansas has a colorful and interesting history, only a portion of which is mentioned here. The most recent U.S. Attorneys include: Barry Grissom (2010 -2016 ), Eric Melgren (2002-2008), Jackie N. Williams (1996-2001), Randall Rathbun (1993-1996) and Lee Thompson (1990-1993).

Supreme Court Cases Originating in the District of Kansas.
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Updated August 26, 2020