Tracking Louisiana´s Legal Heritage:
 Celebrating 200 Years of the Federal Courts in Louisiana

District Judge Samuel Hadden Harper

Samuel Hadden Harper was the fourth United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana, serving for eight years in the early 19th Century.

Judge Harper was born on an unknown date in 1783 in Augusta County, Virginia. As a young man, he moved to New Orleans in the years just after the Louisiana Purchase and established a private law practice, which he maintained from 1808 to 1829. He served in the United States Army during the War of 1812, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. A Jacksonian Democrat, he was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1814. He was Registrar of the United States Land Office in the Eastern District from 1821 to 1824. In 1825, he was a councilman of the City of New Orleans and then became Clerk of Court in the Eastern District.

On March 6, 1829, he was nominated by President Andrew Jackson to the federal trial bench, and was confirmed by the Senate and received his judicial commission the following day.

During his tenure as a federal judge, Judge Harper was a central figure in two matters, one only retrospectively after his death and the other directly, that were ultimately resolved by the United States Supreme Court on petitions for writs of mandamus. It was Judge Harper who appointed Duncan N. Hennen to the position of Clerk of Court in the Eastern District in 1834. Hennen later was described as having performed his duties as Clerk “methodically, promptly, skillfully and uprightly.” Nevertheless, when Judge Harper died, his successor fired Hennen and replaced him in the Clerk’s position with a personal friend. Hennen then filed an application for a writ of mandamus in the Supreme Court seeking an order reinstating him as Clerk of Court, but he was unsuccessful.

In an earlier case involving a mortgage on Belle Plantation in Iberville Parish, Judge Harper himself had been the subject of two petitions for writs of mandamus against him in the Supreme Court. In that case, the Court granted the first writ, ordering Judge Harper to sign a judgment that he had refused to sign, which his predecessor had orally granted but failed to sign prior to his death and before its recordation. After Judge Harper obeyed the writ and signed the judgment, the United States Marshal refused to seize and sell the plantation when the judgment debtor objected that the judgment did not secure the particular debt sought to be enforced. When Judge Harper subsequently denied the judgment creditor’s motion to order the Marshal to seize and sell the property in execution of the judgment, a second petition for writ of mandamus in the same case was filed in the Supreme Court. This time, the Supreme Court denied the writ, vindicating Judge Harper: “The mandamus ordered at the last term directed the performance of a mere ministerial act . . . [This time], [t]o order the district court to give judgment for the plaintiff is ‘to direct in what manner [the court’s] discretion shall be exercised.’”

Judge Harper served the court until his death in Madisonville, Louisiana, on July 19, 1837, at the age of 54.