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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Dillon, John Forrest
(December 25, 1831–May 6, 1914)

–judge, legal author, and lawyer—was the eldest child of Thomas and Rosannah (Forrest) Dillon. He was born in Montgomery County, New York. In 1838, when he was six, the family moved to Davenport, Iowa. His father kept a hotel, and Dillon helped to look after the guests' horses.

    Dillon went to school in Davenport, where Anna Price, his future wife, was a schoolmate. When he was 17, he embarked on a medical career and completed his studies at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Davenport. In 1850 he started to practice medicine at Farmington. He suffered from an inguinal hernia, which prevented him riding on horseback, and thus made practicing medicine impossible.

    Unable to practice medicine, Dillon decided to become a lawyer and returned to live with his mother and sister at Davenport. He kept a little drugstore and taught himself law. In 1852 he was admitted to the Scott County Bar, and later that year was elected county prosecuting attorney. He practiced law in Scott and adjoining counties. In 1853 he married his schoolmate Anna, daughter of Hiram Price, a future U.S. congressman. They had six children.

    In 1858 Dillon was elected a district judge. He made notes on all the Iowa Supreme Court cases and published them as Digest of the Decisions of the Supreme Court of the State of Iowa (1860). In 1862 he was reelected district judge, and the following year was elected to the Iowa Supreme Court. Determined to write a great treatise, he settled on the subject of municipal corporations and worked on it for six years.

    In 1868-1869 Dillon was chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court. He was reelected to the court in 1869, but before his second term began, President Grant appointed him U.S. Circuit Judge for the Eighth Judicial District, comprising Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, and, later, Colorado. Commencing in 1871, Dillon produced five successive volumes titled Cases Determined in the United States Circuit Courts for the Eighth Circuit. His great work, Municipal Corporations, was published in 1872. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley called it "a Legal Classic."Three years later Dillon produced Removal of Causes from State Courts to Federal Courts, which was followed in 1876 by The Law of Municipal Bonds. During his years as a circuit court judge, Dillon served as a regent of the State University of Iowa and taught classes in the law department from 1869 to 1879.

    In 1879, for financial reasons, Dillon accepted a professorship of real property and equity at Columbia University and made plans to practice law in New York. When he retired from the Eighth Circuit, ceremonies in all its states marked the occasion. Tributes from the Kansas and Minnesota bars summarized the qualities he showed as a judge– wisdom, learning, industry, goodness, and greatness.

    After three years at Columbia, Dillon concentrated totally on his remarkable practice at the bar. He was general or advisory counsel to the Union Pacific Railroad Company, the Missouri Pacific, the Texas Pacific, the Manhattan Elevated, the Western Union Telegraph Company, and the estate of Jay Gould. For many years he appeared more than any other lawyer before the U.S. Supreme Court. A series of lectures at Yale Law School in 1891-1892 yielded a book titled The Laws and Jurisprudence of England and America (1895).

    Then, in 1898, tragedy struck. His wife and daughter Annie were lost at sea. Dillon made a commemorative book for private circulation titled Anna Price Dillon: Memoir and Memorials (1900). His only comfort lay in ceaseless law practice and writing. In that tragic year of 1898, Dillon was a member of the commission that drew up the charter for Greater New York. Thereafter he compiled and edited a collection on the great U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall, titled John Marshall: Life, Character and Judicial Service (1903).

    The first edition of Municipal Corporations had been a single volume of 800 pages. In 1911 Dillon produced the fifth edition in five volumes totaling 4,000 pages. He dedicated it to the American Bar Association, of which he had been president in 1891-1892. In his introduction, Dillon wrote that the edition constituted "the largest and certainly the last payment" of the debt he owed "to this great profession of the law to which... I have given... the whole of my active life."

    Dillon died at age 82 and was buried in Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport.
Sources include Edward H. Stiles, Recollections and Sketches of Notable Lawyers and Public Men of Early Iowa (1916); George S. Clay, "John Forrest Dillon," Green Bag 23 (1911), 447–56; and Mrs. William H. Dillon, John Forrest Dillon, 1831–1914: A Look at an Outstanding Life (1983).
Contributor: Richard Acton

Cite as: Acton, Richard. "Dillon, John Forrest" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 21 December 2014