Philip Kissick Lawrence was the fifth judge of the federal court in New Orleans at a time when the state’s districts were combined into one. He was born in New York City on an unknown date near the end of the 18th Century. His parents were Gilbert Lawrence and Margaret Kissick Lawrence.
Judge Lawrence graduated from Columbia College in New York in 1812, earned his law degree at Litchfield Law School in Hartford, Connecticut in 1814, and a Masters Degree from Columbia in 1818. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1818. Judge Lawrence moved to New Orleans at an indeterminate time and established a private law practice, which he maintained until 1837. During that time, he also served as a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives and as editor of the New Orleans Morning Post newspaper from 1835 to 1836. He was appointed United States Attorney for the combined Districts of Louisiana in 1837.
A Whig, he was nominated on September 6, 1837, by President Martin Van Buren to a seat on Louisiana’s federal trial bench. Within a week, he was confirmed by the Senate and received his commission that same day, September 12, 1837.
Judge Lawrence is most notably mentioned in the available historical materials for a controversy involving the court’s clerk. In 1834, his predecessor had appointed Duncan N. Hennen Clerk of Court, and Hennen, who by all accounts had performed satisfactorily, held the post upon Judge Lawrence’s appointment. On May 18, 1838, however, Judge Lawrence wrote Hennen a letter firing him: “In taking this step,” Judge Lawrence wrote, “I desire to be understood as neither prompted by any unfriendly disposition towards you personally, nor wishing to cast the slightest shade of censure on your official conduct. On the contrary, . . . a sense of justice to you demands that I should do what lies in my power to repel any unfavourable inference that might be drawn from your dismissal. . . . In appointing [John] Winthrop to succeed you, I have been purely actuated by a sense of duty and feelings of kindness towards one whom I have long known, and between whom and myself the closest friendship has always subsisted.” Hennen sought reinstatement to his position by filing a petition for writ of mandamus in the United States Supreme Court, but the Court refused to issue the writ, finding that the power both to appoint and to remove the Clerk of Court, even without cause, at that time was entirely within the judge’s discretion, and that there was no constitutional or other legal obstacle to Judge Lawrence's actions.
Hennen then petitioned the United States House of Representatives, requesting an investigation of Judge Lawrence. A special committee of the House recommended on February 11, 1839, that Judge Lawrence be impeached for his actions concerning the Clerk of Court. However, no action was taken by the full House. Thereafter, Judge Lawrence remained as United States District Judge in Louisiana for a little more than three years, until his death on March 19, 1841, in New Orleans.
© United States District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana