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SCOTUS history on display

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Attorneys and history buffs alike may want to consider a detour to the law library at Indiana University Maurer School of Law next time they are in or near Bloomington.

Extremely rare documents and signatures of U.S. Supreme Court justices are on display for public viewing on the second floor of the school’s law library, located at 211 S. Indiana Ave. in Bloomington.

scotus-15col A pleading by SCOTUS Chief Justice John Marshall regarding a defaulted promissory note was donated to I.U. Maurer School of Law. (Photo courtesy of IU Maurer School of Law)

Among the items in the collection are 74 signatures of U.S. Supreme Court justices who served from 1789 to present; a pleading by Chief Justice John Marshall, who served 1801-35, in the case of Blackwell v. Sydon over a defaulted promissory note, dated Nov. 24, 1785; a letter written by the first U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, who served 1789-95; a slip opinion for Heller v. New York signed by the entire 1973 court; and signatures of Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, who served from 1902-32; Roger Taney, who served 1836-64; Salmon Chase, who served 1864-73; Louis Brandeis, who served 1916-1939; and many others.

Also included are an 1889 Currier & Ives print of President Benjamin Harrison and his cabinet, with appended signatures of Harrison and the cabinet members; a 1963 letter from Justice William O. Douglas, who served from 1939-75, declining an invitation to write an article for Teacher’s College Journal, sent to professor Joseph R. Ellis at Indiana State College, now Indiana State University; and a two-page letter written by Judah P. Benjamin, the first Jewish member of the U.S. Senate, who later was appointed attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state for the Confederacy.

Many of these items are in the law library display, while the Marshall pleading is displayed inside the dean’s suite in the main law building, according to a news release from the law school.

The items were donated by collector, IU Maurer School of Law alumnus, and Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Ezra Friedlander. Judge Friedlander, who graduated with a BA in history and government from IU in 1962, told Indiana Lawyer that, while adding to his collections of sports memorabilia and art glass, he discovered an auction house had SCOTUS memorabilia among its other items. That occurred over a decade ago, and he has been collecting SCOTUS items since.

“I started with the Marshall piece, then decided to collect as many signatures as I could,” he said of the SCOTUS collection.

After collecting SCOTUS memorabilia for about 10 years, the judge realized that he was ready to stop. He wanted the law school to have the collection so others could see the items.

When collecting, regardless of the category, Judge Friedlander cautioned collectors to be certain of the provenance of the items they buy or bid on because there are many fakes and forgeries that are sold by less reputable dealers.

The issue of fakes and forgeries was also a concern of military collector and Indiana Military Museum founder Knox Superior Judge Jim R. Osborne.

Judge Osborne has collected military memorabilia since he was a young child and said that collectors and potential collectors must do their research and not always take things at face value, especially items on Internet auction sites like eBay.

To assist future owners and maintain historical significance, it is important for current owners to keep track of the provenance of an item.

“Even if an item is from a family member of a renowned person, I try to get letters or other proof from the family member to keep on file with those items. It’s important from a curator’s standpoint. It’s easy for me to say that belonged to so and so, but it’s very, very important to keep track of this for the future,” Judge Osborne said.

The Indiana Military Museum was featured in the Dec. 8 – 21, 2010, edition of Indiana Lawyer.

“Authenticity is a big issue,” Judge Friedlander said. “It’s why I only deal with auction houses instead of online. It’s the same for sports memorabilia. Auction houses will verify signatures. They have people who are experts who can authenticate signatures. If you buy online, you’re buying something blindly, I wouldn’t do that. The item may be good or may not be good, but there’s no sure way of knowing.”

The judge’s experience looking for signatures of sports figures helped in seeking out SCOTUS signatures.

“You can go to places that sell autographs, where you can pay a retail value for them,” he said. “You can also sign up for updates from auction houses.”

Judge Friedlander said while at one time he would receive up to 10 catalogs each month, many of the items are now posted online before auctions take place.

“It just takes time and patience,” he said of the collecting process.

One piece that stood out to him was the 1963 letter from Justice Douglas because of its connection to the school now known as Indiana State University. Not only was it an item related to the SCOTUS, but also Indiana.

“I’m pleased that the law school wanted it. … When you collect stuff, you don’t have an exit strategy, for lack of a better term, unless there’s someone in particular who’s interested in your family who expresses an interest in the collection. … Other people can now enjoy it and take a look at it,” Judge Friedlander said.

The school appreciates the collection as well.

“We are honored and delighted that Judge Friedlander chose to donate his collection to the IU Maurer School of Law,” said Dean Lauren Robel. “The collection gives us all an opportunity to feel directly connected to the rich history of the American legal profession.”

Judge Friedlander serves on the IU dean’s advisory board of the College of Arts and Sciences, including as chairman of the committee on directors. He also serves on the board of directors of the Indiana University Foundation, previously chaired its committee on directors, and was a member of the foundation’s executive committee.

Judge Friedlander is a member of the Maurer school’s Academy of Law Alumni Fellows, the highest honor the school can bestow upon its graduates, and he was previously the president of the school’s alumni board. He has also endowed a scholarship at the IU Maurer School of Law.•

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