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Deemer, Horace Emerson
(September 24, 1858–February 26, 1917)

–judge and chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court—was born in Bourbon, Marshall County, Indiana, the eldest of six children of John A. Deemer, a lumber dealer from an abolitionist family, and Elizabeth (Erwin) Deemer, whose father was an agent on the Underground Railroad. In 1866, when he was eight, his family moved to Cedar County, Iowa, settling on a farm near West Liberty. He attended public schools, helped his father in his lumber business and furniture store, and became a competent carpenter.

    Deemer learned to earn his living by selling fruit along the West Liberty railway lines. He earned a law degree at the State University of Iowa, was admitted to the bar, and joined a law firm in Nebraska. Miserable in Nebraska, he returned to Iowa in 1879 and set up a law firm in Red Oak with a classmate, Joseph M. Junkin. They prospered. Deemer became a major in the Iowa National Guard, secretary of the county fair for six years, and chairman of the Republican County Committee during one campaign.

    In 1882 Deemer married Jeanette Gibson of Red Oak, for years one of the most prominent members of the State Federation of Woman's Clubs. They had two daughters.

    In 1886, at age 27, Deemer ran for district judge. A member of the bar wrote, "The only objection to his candidacy was that he was young, and it was suggested that skill as a baseball player (Deemer being conceded to be one of the best in the State) was not evidence of fitness for the position of Judge."Nonetheless he was elected and reelected four years later.

    In 1894 the legislature increased the number of Iowa Supreme Court judges from five to six. Governor Frank D. Jackson had known Deemer at the State University of Iowa and appointed him, at age 35, to the vacancy. He proved an exceptional judge and a prodigious worker, filing some 2,000 opinions in 22 years. He wrote them in pencil, in a fairly illegible hand. Among numerous great questions he settled were constitutional cases concerning the anticigarette law, the party wall statute, and the antitrust statutes. He was repeatedly reelected to the court and was chief justice in 1898, 1904, 1908, and 1915.

    Deemer had a passion for libraries. He was an ex-officio trustee of the State Library. During his 17 years as chairman of its Book Committee, the library more than doubled its number of books. With Judge La Vega G. Kinne, he organized the State Traveling Library of some 3,000 volumes. He also founded a splendid library in Red Oak.

    From 1895 to 1904 Deemer lectured in the Law Department of the State University of Iowa. He refused the deanship of the Law Department in 1900, but eventually became an honorary professor of jurisprudence. He lectured widely. Among his many lectures were "The Dedicatory Address for the Drake University Law Building" and "A History of the University"–the latter to celebrate the State University of Iowa's 60th anniversary.

    Deemer's chief written work was a three-volume tome, Iowa Pleading and Practice, Law and Equity with Forms (1912), which became a standard work for Iowa lawyers. The astonishing breadth of his interests was shown by his active membership in many organizations, including the Iowa Society for the Prevention of Tuberculosis, the State Association of Charities and Corrections, the American Forestry Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Free Art League.

    In 1911 Deemer ventured into politics in the Iowa legislature's last election of a U.S. senator. The Republicans held a large majority but were split. On the 33rd ballot, Deemer offered himself as a compromise candidate. He was defeated on the 68th ballot on the final day of the session.

    Twice Deemer was recommended to the president to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice. In 1909 members of the Iowa congressional delegation urged President Taft to appoint Deemer. Checking Deemer's "long and highly creditable record on the bench in Iowa," the president found "that Mr. Deemer was much too liberal in his views for him to be named as a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States" and did not appoint him.

    In 1917, at the age of 58, Deemer died at the beautiful colonial house he had built on a hill at Red Oak.
Sources See Johnson Brigham, "A Tribute to Horace Emerson Deemer," Des Moines Register, 2/28/1917; and Scott M. Ladd, "Horace E. Deemer, 1858–1917," Proceedings of the Twenty-third Annual Session of the Iowa State Bar Association Held at Council Bluffs, Iowa (1917), 116–22.
Contributor: Richard Acton