On May 18, 1858, the United States Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Samuel Nelson, dismissed Holcombe vs. McKusick, an appeal from the Supreme Court of Minnesota Territory, because it lacked jurisdiction. The opinion is noteworthy because Nelson concluded with a tirade against the "complicated and confused" mode of pleading in the territory which he attributed to its "absurd and impractical experiment" in codifying rules of pleading.
Minnesota Territory was the sixth jurisdiction to enact a variation of the Field Code, which was adopted in New York in 1848. When appeals from federal courts in code states reached the Supreme Court in the 1850s, the justices reacted with sarcasm and contempt. Holcombe was one of five cases decided between 1851 and 1860 in which the Court criticized the codes.
In this article, the various strata of Holcombe are peeled away to reveal territorial lawyers struggling with the new codes, the futility of Justice Nelson's scolding of the Minnesota bench and bar, and speculation as to whom his caustic lecture was really directed.