Edward Coke Billings was a Reconstruction Republican and transplanted Yankee in the New Orleans federal court, where he served for more than 17 years. He was born in Hatfield, Massachusetts, on December 3, 1829. He received an undergraduate degree from Yale College in 1853, and his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1855.
He practiced law in New York City until 1865, “when failing health led him to seek a Southern home, and he settled in New Orleans. There, . . . he had a large practice in the settlement of claims growing out of the Civil War. He also became active in public matters during the Reconstruction Period and in the presidential [race] . . . , acting as counselor in the Republican interest . . . .” In early 1876, he was nominated to the Eastern District federal trial bench by President Ulysses S. Grant, confirmed by the Senate, and received his commission on February 10, 1876.
Judge Billings attempted to adapt to the different ways of his new Southern home. He ordered publication of judicial seizures and sales by “advertisement in two newspapers, published in the city of New Orleans, viz., one published in the English and one in the French. . .” In the mid-1880s, Judge Billings appointed Thomas Morris Chester to the post of United States Commissioner, a forerunner position to today’s United States Magistrate Judge, making Chester “the first black judicial officer in the federal court system. In this position, Chester’s salary was paid by the filing fees of the parties. Chester’s popularity as a commissioner brought some embarrassment to Judge Billings in that he drew more fees than the other two commissioners, both of whom were white. To save face, Judge Billings asked Chester to resign.”
In 1881, Judge Billings was nominated by President James A. Garfield for elevation to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Former President Grant had recommended Judge Billings for the position, but his support seems to have been tepid. Volume 30 of Grant’s Papers contains a letter from Grant to Garfield stating: “The present U.S. Minister to Mexico [Philip H. Morgan] is a very able man, one of the best lawyers in the south, and I would not ask his removal . . . . If however Judge Billings should be rejected for the Circuit Judgeship I do not know a man in the whole south who could take his place better than . . . Morgan, . . . I would not support this however if I though[t] you had Judge Settle of Florida in contemplation.” Judge Billings’ nomination to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit failed that same year when the Senate took no action on it.
Judge Billings was deeply devoted to and in love with his wife. In 1887, he published a touching tribute to her in his book, A Biographical Sketch of Emily Sanford Billings. When he died in New Haven, Connecticut, on December 1, 1893, his last will and testament contained a bequest to Yale University establishing the Emily Sanford Billings Professorship of English Literature in 1894.
© United States District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana