TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Donald Paine on Dec 22, 2010

Journal Issue Date: Jan 2011

Journal Name: January 2011 - Vol. 47, No. 1

Luther Martin:

Were you ever drunk in court? Did you ever see a lawyer who was? I have long been a consumer of beer, both my homebrew and commercial brew. But I select venues far from courtrooms. Let's look at the life of a lawyer who excelled when fueled by alcohol.

Luther Martin (1748-1826) spent most of his life in Maryland. He served as attorney-general of that state in addition to conducting a busy and lucrative private practice. Contemporaries rated him the best in their profession.

He was a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. He successfully defended Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase in the 1804 impeachment trial. And in 1807 he obtained a "Scotch verdict" for Aaron Burr in the treason trial: "Not proved to be guilty under this indictment by any evidence submitted to us."
What about Martin's forensic drinking? Here are two anecdotes.

Representing a Quaker in a property lawsuit was especially difficult because the client insisted on no liquor consumption during trial. Martin did a poor job in the morning session. At the noon recess he went to his room at the inn, saturated a loaf of bread with brandy, and ate lunch. He improved in the afternoon session and won.

In another trial former client Samuel Chase presided, as Supreme Court justices did in those days. Martin was full of spirits, and the magistrate commented: "I am surprised that you can so prostitute your talents." Counsel rose and said: "Sir, I never prostituted my talents except when I defended you and Colonel Burr," adding a comment to the jury, "a couple of the greatest rascals in the world." Chase started to hold Martin in contempt but relented.

Let's pause for a reminder about modern contempt procedure. Conduct such as Martin's is classified as criminal (not civil) contempt and involves statutes and a rule. Tenn. Code Ann.  §29-9-102(1) condemns "willful misbehavior of any person in the presence of the court or so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice." Punishment is codified in Tenn. Code Ann.  §29-9-103: a $50 fine and 10 days in jail. T.R.Crim.P. 42(a) provides that "a judge may summarily punish a person who commits criminal contempt in the judge's presence if the judge certifies that he or she saw or heard the conduct constituting the contempt."

Luther Martin was pitiful physically and mentally in his final years. Aaron Burr took him into his New York home until death at age 79.


The best biography is Luther Martin of Maryland, by Paul S. Clarkson and R. Samuel Jett (the Johns Hopkins Press 1970).

Don Paine Donald F. Paine is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, and Bickers LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, and the Tennessee Judicial Conference.