Orrin Nelson Carter was born on January 22, 1854 in Jefferson County, New York. His father was a sailor on the Great Lakes, who died when Orrin was only two years old. When he was ten years old, he moved to Illinois with his family, and his mother remarried. Carter attended Wheaton College and graduated in 1877. During this time, he paid his way through college by teaching school and working as a janitor.
After graduating, Orrin decided to stay in Illinois and keep teaching. He taught in the counties of Bureaus and Grundy and studied law on the side. He didn’t attend law school, but rather studied under Judge Murray A. Tuley and General I. N. Stiles. He was then admitted into the bar of Illinois in 1880. For two years he served as a superintendent of one of the districts he taught in but resigned when he was appointed to be a state attorney for Grundy County, one of the counties he had served as a teacher. He held this position in Grundy County for five years while keeping his own private practice running. In 1888 he moved to Chicago where at first he solely practiced private law. Later, he served as general attorney for the Chicago Sanitary District from 1892-1894. In 1881 he married Janet Stevens and had son and a daughter.
In 1894, he was nominated by the Republican party to serve as a county judge in Cook County. He was re-elected in 1898, and then again in 1902 without opposition. In 1900 he unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for Governor. There was a three-way dead-lock tie in delegates, until one of the candidates dropped out and threw his support to Richard Yates. After eleven years as a county judge, Carter stepped down from his post and was elected to the Illinois Supreme Court in 1906. He ran opposed in his re-election in 1915, but was endorsed by every major political party leader and enjoyed a landslide victory.
Despite his active career as a judge, Judge Carter also held a number of other prominent public positions. From 1912-1913 he served as President to the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology. He was chairman of the judicial section of the American Bar Association, a position he held from 1913-1916. The Chicago Bar Association unanimously endorsed him for a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court; although nothing came of this endorsement, it was a considerable honor that elevated his prestige as a judge. He received two honorary Doctor degrees of Law, one from Wheaton College in 1889, and the other from Northwestern University in 1925. He was also one of the trustees to the estate of Joseph Medill, the former editor of the Chicago Tribune.
When he finally retired in June of 1924, he had served on the Supreme Court of Illinois for 18 years and wrote over 1,000 decisions. Shortly after stepping down in 1924, Carter suffered from a stroke and never fully recovered. In the last years of his life, he moved to a suburb of Los Angeles, California where he died on August 15th, 1928.
Next: James H. Cartwright
- Crossely, F. B. “Editorial Notes: Orrin Nelson Carter 1854-1928.” Illinois Law Review. Volume 23. December (1928): pg. 371-374.
- “Orrin Carter, Former State Justice, Dead.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1963); August 17th, 1928; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849-1986) pg. 1
- “Orrin Nelson Carter.” http://www.state.il.us/court/supremecourt/justicearchive/Bio_Mulkey.asp