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The Great War Recalled: Minnesota Law & World War I

This month’s centenary of the outbreak of the “War to end all Wars” evokes memories of issues and events that then shaped and in many cases continue to shape Minnesota jurisprudence.  Precedents involving free speech, selective service, insurance, wrongful death, contracts, and securities law continue to sound.

Sailors, soldiers and Red Cross workers at the train station, St. Paul, MN, 1917. © Minnesota Historical Society. 300w" sizes="(max-width: 612px) 100vw, 612px" /> Sailors, soldiers and Red Cross workers at the train station, St. Paul, MN, 1917. © Minnesota Historical Society.

This month, August, 2014, marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I.  Known in its time as the Great War, it resulted in more than 36 million casualties: some 20 million deaths and 16 million wounded.  This toll included approximately 116,000 Americans who died, and 204,000 wounded among the 4.7 million Americans who served in the military before the war concluded on November 11, 1918, four and one-half years after it began.  More than 100,000 Minnesotans are believed to have fought in the war, although a plaque on the grounds of the State Capitol in St. Paul refers to 57,413 who “gallantly served.”  Whatever the number, 1,432 were killed in combat and more than 3,600 others died of a flu epidemic that broke out at the end of the war.

The war was triggered when a young Bosnian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, heirs-in-waiting to the Austrian-Hungarian empire, in the ethnically troubled city of Sarajevo, Serbia at the beginning of the summer that year.  Within a month, Austria-Hungary went to war against Serbia and the conflict took on worldwide overtones in the first week of August when the great powers of the time, England, France, and Russia on one side, and Germany on the other, declared war on each other.  These events set off a chain reaction as warring powers and lesser countries across much of the globe were drawn into the conflict.

Most of the battles were centered in Europe, although some were fought in other places as well.  The United States entered the war in April, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson, who had been reelected six months earlier on the campaign slogan of “He kept us out of war,” asked for, and received, a declaration of war from Congress.  The American entry on the side of the Allied powers, primarily England and France after Russia dropped out that fall, turned the tide and ultimately led to the armistice about 18 months later.

The conflict, however, was not, as the Allies proclaimed, “the War to end all Wars,” or as another slogan went, to “make the world safe for democracy.”  Its conclusion triggered turmoil through the rest of the century and even into this one, marked by many events traceable to the Great War and its aftermath.  The postwar rise of Nazi Germany, the Holocaust it created, and the perpetration of World War II are ascribed by many as unfinished business of World War I.  The rise (and subsequent fall) of Communism in Russia and other countries, the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, and other violence around the globe also stem from World War I.

So do many social changes in this country.  They includethe 18th Amendment to the Constitution enacting prohibition against intoxicating liquors, later repealed by the 21st Amendment only 14 years later, and the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, among others.

World War I also left its mark on Minnesota jurisprudence in many ways.  The war created a rich body of case law in Minnesota, ranging from 1st Amendment Freedom of Expression cases that reached the Supreme Court to business and commercial disputes.

In commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of World War I, here is a look at some of the ways that it affected litigants, lawyers, and the law in this state.

Supreme Suits

The advent of civil disobedience to war, seemingly a modern-day phenomenon sparked by the conflict in Viet Nam, was rooted in opposition to World War I.  Although hardly as widespread or vehement as later protesters, there were many in this country, including Minnesota, who protested the war and ended up being criminally  prosecuted for their opposition.

A whole body of 1st Amendment law, including the famous “clear and present danger” concept, first articulated by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Schenck v. United States,249 U.S. 47 (1919) and later adopted as a standard in Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972), comes from World War I protest cases.  Two such cases arose in Minnesota and made it all of the way to the High Court.

In Arver v. U.S.,245 U.S. 366 (1918), four men from Minnesota appealed a decision of the federal court here upholding the Selective Draft Act, Pub. L. 65–12, 40 Stat. 76, enacted by Congress the year before the country’s entry into World War I.  The challengers were grouped together with some men from other jurisdictions in what was commonly referred to as the Selective Draft Law cases. These men refused to register for the draft, claiming that it violated a number of constitutional provisions, including the imposition of slavery or involuntary servitude under the 13th Amendment of the Constitution and infringed upon the Due Process and Legal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.  But the Supreme Court rejected their arguments, holding that the measure was properly within the scope of the congressional power under Article I, §A of the Constitution, which grants Congress the power to raise and support armies.  The duty to register for the draft, as adopted by Congress, was “the highest duty of the citizen … [and] is inherent in citizenship.”

The Arver case formed the basis for subsequent decisions of the Supreme Court, including proscribing draft-card burning in U.S. v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968) and upholding the male-only draft requirements in Rostker v. Goldberg, 453 U.S. 57 (1981).  It also underlay the High Court ruling upholding a federal law disqualifying men who fail to register for the draft from federal scholarships in Selective Service System v. MPIRG, (1984), overturning a decision  of U.S. District Court Judge Donald Alsop in Minnesota that deemed the measure unconstitutional.

A Minnesota statute making it unlawful to interfere with or discourage enlistment of men in military forces was upheld in the face of a 1st Amendment challenge in Gilbert v. Minnesota, 254 U.S. 325 (1920).  The case was brought before the Supreme Court by a Minnesota man from Goodhue County who was convicted for violating a Minnesota measure that made it unlawful “to interfere or discourage enlistment of men in the military and naval forces of the country.” The defendant transgressed the law by making a speech, after he was sent into the war, criticizing the country for being “stampeded into this war by newspaper rot” and urging that, instead of following the slogan “to make the world safe for democracy,” a predicate of the war effort, “we had better make America safe for democracy.”  Following affirmance by the Minnesota Supreme Court, 141 Minn. 263, 169 N.W. 790 (1918), the Supreme Court rejected the 1st Amendment challenge, noting that the state law is “a simple exertion of the police power to preserve the peace of the State.”  The decision drew a pair of strange bedfellow dissents.  Chief Justice William Howard Taft, a conservative, felt the state law was preempted by federal legislation, while liberal jurist Louis Brandeis regarded  the conviction as violating the constitutional guarantee that “permitted free discussion of these governmental functions.”

The Arver and Gilbert cases were the highlights of a number of other post-WWI rulings of the Minnesota Supreme Court that addressed the actions of war protestors. Most of these upheld the various statutes and governmental actions taken against the objectors.  They include the following:  See, State v. Hartung, 147 Minn. 128, 179N.W. 646 (Minn. 1920) (conviction upheld under state sedition law for telling Red Cross worker that the organization was working for “the wrong side”); State v. Holm, 139 Minn. 267, 166 N.W. 181 (Minn. 1918) (conviction upheld for distributing anti-war pamphlets); State v. Kaercher, 141 Minn. 186, 169 N.W. 699 (Minn. 1918) (farmer’s speech in pamphlets declaring that “This war is all wrong.  The government is not acting right.” deemed violative of state laws prohibiting anti-enlistment advocacy.  But see, State v. Rempel, 143 Minn. 50, 172 N.W. 888 (Minn. 1990) (conviction for discouraging enlistment reversed because antiwar conversation was between two individuals sharing same antiwar views).

A civil suit arising out of suspected war disloyalty was addressed by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in Meints v. Huntington,  276 F. 245 (8th Cir. 1921).  The case was brought by a man who was assaulted, tarred and feathered, and run out of Luverne because he was believed to be unsupportive of the war effort.  A lengthy trial resulted in a ruling by the U.S. District Court in favor of the defendants, but the 8th Circuit reversed and remanded for a new trial on grounds that the “defense of justification” was inappropriately allowed to be raised at trial, even though the actions taken against the claimant were “a wanton violation of the plaintiff’s rights.”

Insurance Issues

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, a decade or more after the end of World War I, passed upon a number of issues relating to insurance benefits for military naval personnel who suffered disability or death in the conflict. The decisions interpreted the War Risk Insurance Act, a measure passed by Congress in 1914, three years before the United States’ entry into the war, to cover military personnel and their beneficiaries.

In Stephens v. United States, 29 F.2d. 904 (8th Cir. 1928), a Minnesota war veteran, who sustained a leg injury while in the navy during the war, allowed his policy to lapse due to nonpayment of premiums.  He subsequently sought reinstatement of the policy and later became totally and permanently disabled.  The issue before the 8th Circuit was whether he should be able to collect benefits dating back to the time of his discharge from the service, or only from the date the policy was reinstated, nearly six years later.  Affirming a ruling of the U.S. District Court in Minnesota, the appellate court ruled that the disability insurance only extended from the date of the reinstatement.  Retroactive coverage, long after the policy had lapsed, “would open an avenue to fraud and imposition and greatly embarrass the administration of the law” by creating a “dangerous precedent … that one who voluntarily … has obtained reinstatement of insurance … may thereafter … repudiate the contract obligations thus entered into” by nonpayment of policy premiums.

Several 8th Circuit cases, all decided during the early years of the Great Depression of the 1930s, involved related issues:  whether deaths of the veterans, attributable to injuries during the war, were covered by policies that had lapsed due to nonpayment of premiums after the war ended.  In United States v. LeDuc, 48 F.2d 789 (8th Cir. 1931), the family of a Minnesota veteran who died from tuberculosis seven years after being discharged from military service, could collect on a policy that had lapsed at the time of his discharge from the military.  Reversing a lower court ruling dismissing the case, the appellate court held that the family was entitled to a new trial to determine whether the veteran was “totally and permanently disabled” at the time of his discharge, which would keep the policy in force through the time of his death, even though his premium payments lapsed.  See also, McNally v. United States, 52 F.2d 440 (8th Cir. 1931), in which a veteran who was shot through the chest in war, developed tuberculosis while in service, and died nine years later obtained remand of dismissal of his insurance claim for determination of whether he was “totally and permanently disabled while policy was still in effect.”

But a different result was reached in Eggen v. United States, 58 F.2d 616 (8th Cir. 1932), which also involved a war veteran’s death from tuberculosis, which was attributable to a war-time injury.  Upholding the lower court’s dismissal of the case, the 8th Circuit held that there was insufficient evidence that the veteran, although totally disabled, was “permanently disabled” at the time the policy lapsed when he left the service and ceased paying premiums.

Similarly, in Proechel v. United States, 59 F.2d 648 (8th Cir. 1932), the mother of a deceased veteran was unable to recover death benefits under a war-risk insurance policy following her son’s death, which occurred three years after he left the service.  The veteran’s disabling arthritis, which stemmed from gonorrhea, was not the type of “total disability” that would invoke coverage under the insurance policy that was in effect during the war for a death that occurred subsequently after the veteran ceased making premium payments.

Fire Fights

The federal Government took over much of the nation’s railroad system in 1918 to facilitate moving war-related materials.  But devastating forest fires in northeast Minnesota in mid-October, 1918, about a month before the war ended, led to a number of legal fights.  The conflagration, which destroyed nearly 2,000 square miles of forest and resulted in $40 million property damage while claiming the lives of about 500 people, prompted a number of cases that reached the state and federal courts in Minnesota over the next two decades.

The litigation in Hall v. Davis, 150 Minn. 35, 184 N.W. 25 (1921), was nearly as sprawling as the fire itself, consolidating 278 claims against the director general of the railroads for the negligent setting of a fire by a locomotive and allowing a fire to escape while within the control of the railroad running from Cloquet northwesterly to Floodwood.   A ruling by the St. Louis County District Court in favor of the landowners was affirmed on grounds that the “fire negligently allowed to escape from the locomotive … spread to and caused the destruction” of the properties involved in the litigation. Thus, the rulings made by four lower court judges were upheld and damages awarded to the property owners.

A pair of wrongful death actions had unusual twists.  In Granquist v. Duluth, M. & N. Ry. Co., 155 Minn. 217, 193 N.W. 126 (1923), the widow of a man who was killed in the fire sued a railway company, which was under federal control during the war, two railways that were not under federal control, and two lumber companies. More than four years later, she sought to amend the complaint to include a claim against another railway carrier.  The St. Louis County District Court dismissed the lawsuit on grounds that it was untimely under the then-existing four-year statute of limitations, and the state supreme court affirmed.  Although they tried to organize the railroads into a “unified national system” during the war, each of the railroads continued to be “active, responsible parties, answerable for their own wrongs.”  Therefore, suit against the original respondent railroads did not toll the statute of limitations as to a different railroad, which was untimely sued after expiration of the statute of limitations.

But the family of a woman who was killed in the fire was entitled to seek wrongful death damages two decades after earlier claims had been settled for $400 in United States v. City National Bank, 31 F. Supp. 530 (D. Minn. 1939).  The case turned on whether a law passed by Congress in 1935, that allowed recovery of damages resulting from the fire, applied.  The court held that Congress intended its measure to allow compensation for “all who suffered loss of whatsoever character to receive payments.”  Therefore, the earlier settlement, which covered only property damage, did not bar wrongful death damages under the subsequent measure.

Business Battles

A number of businesses battled it out in the Minnesota courts over issues relating to World War I.

In Watkins v. W.E. Neiler Co., 135 Minn. 343, 160 N.W. 864 (1917), a dispute between an Oklahoma banker and a Minnesota broker over the value lost on an investment due to the war in Europe, which the United States had not yet entered, reached the state supreme court.  Anticipating a rise in the price of food products because of the war then raging in Europe, the Oklahoma banker, while vacationing in Osakis, instructed the broker to purchase pork “on the open market on margin.”  But pork prices fell, and the broker was unable to reach the investor, who had left the area and was traveling without his whereabouts being known.  Thus, the investor closed out the pork contracts at a loss, which prompted a lawsuit by the investor.  The district court rendered a nominal verdict of $31.25 for the investor, and the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed.  Because the investor “knew that the market was uncertain and fluctuated rapidly,” the broker was not liable for negligence.  Furthermore, the investor neglected to inform the broker where he could be reached for further instructions, which further minimized his claim for damages.

The effects of the war on the economy also was central to a dispute over gas sold by a utility to the city of Minneapolis in Minneapolis Gas Light Co. v. Minneapolis, 140 Minn. 400, 168 N.W. 588 (1918).  The case was brought by a utility that had agreed to a fixed price for the sale of gas in April, 1914, shortly before the war began. The company sought modification of the arrangement due to increased costs of producing gas because of the war.  The supreme court, upholding a decision of the Hennepin County District Court, ruled that the agreement between the utility and the city was invalid, notwithstanding the “unforeseen enormous increase in the price of all materials used in the manufacture and distribution of gas” due to the war.  The prewar rate did “constitute a valid contract which … could not [be] set aside merely because subsequent conditions made the terms thereof burdensome to one of the parties.”

In Corliss v. U.S., 7 F.2d 455 (8th Cir. 1925), the operator of a Nebraska creamery that purchased and sold milk in Minnesota had been convicted of criminal fraud and making false representations.  The charges related to the creamery’s sale of stock to finance expansion of their business to meet the high demand for condensed milk during the war.  The sale of $3 million in stock to finance expansion was wiped out when the company began to operate at a loss and proceeds from the sale of the new stock were used to pay dividends rather than to expand the facility.

Although the trial court convicted the defendant, the 8th Circuit reversed the conviction on grounds that the officers of the company “were justified in the belief that the future of the company was assured” because of the high demand for their creamery products due to the war.  They had reason to believe that they would be able, “like … other war industries, to enlarge business, and … [realize] large profits.”  Their over-optimistic zeal in making representations to investors “ought to be looked upon charitably because of the “atmosphere which reigned” during the war. Those hopes were dashed when “the war ended and the troops were brought home,” which resulted in “a disastrous reaction upon the creamery business.”

Centennial Conclusion

These cases reflect some of the Minnesota litigation attributable to issues and events surrounding World War I. As Minnesotans and the rest of the nation mark the centennial of that conflict, they should be aware of its contribution to the development of jurisprudence in this jurisdiction.

Marshall H. Tanick is an attorney in the law firm of Hellmuth & Johnson, PA, with office headquarters in Eden Prairie and satellite offices in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and St. Louis Park.  Mr. Tanick is president of Beyond the Yellow Ribbon – Quad Communities (BTYR), which provides volunteer services to military veterans and their families in four northwestern suburbs of Hennepin County.  

The author thanks Brian Christiansen, an associate attorney with the law firm, and Timothy LaCroix, a law clerk, for their assistance with this article.



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