Chief Justice Thomas Durfee

Inducted: 2009
Born: 1826 - Died:

Durfee, Thomas, 1826-1901

Thomas Durfee was the eldest son of Job Durfee, who was chief justice of Rhode Island from 1828 to 1849, was marked from the outset for a career in law. His mother was Judith Borden, member of a prominent Fall River Family. Thomas completed his preparatory education at the East Greenwich Academy and graduated with honors from Brown University in 1846.

After studying law under the tutelage of Charles Tillinghast and future chief justice Charles F. Bradley, Thomas was admitted to the Bar in 1848. He was the reporter of the Rhode Island Supreme Court from 1849-1853, succeeding James K. Angell, with whom he wrote a treatise on the Laws of Highways in 1857. In that year Thomas married Sarah Slater of Providence, a descendant of the noted textile manufacturer. The couple had only one child–Samuel Slater Durfee. Durfee served on the Providence Court of Magistrates from 1854 to 1860. During the last five years of that tenure he was chief magistrate.

Following the path of his famous father, he became the Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives in 1864. He moved to the state senate in the following year. Like his father, he became an associate justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court in June 1865 and replaced George Brayton as chief justice in 1875. Brayton and Job Durfee had sat on the infamous trials of Thomas Wilson Dorr and John Gordon.

According to one authority “the state reports [of Supreme Court decisions] abound in examples of his powers as a writer of judicial opinions, and his contributions to the reports exceed those of any other judge in the history of the court” to that time. Durfee had a strong interest in Rhode Island history and gained local fame as a writer and lecturer on such topics. One of his most notable efforts was the delivery of the major oration at the 1886 observance of the 250th anniversary of the founding of Providence.

Durfee published several highly-acclaimed articles and a volume of the works of his father. He was an active member of the Rhode Island Historical Society and maintained strong connections with Brown University which conferred an honorary doctorate upon him in 1875. Durfee was chancellor of Brown from 1879 to 1888 and a fellow of the university until his death in 1901 at the age of seventy-five.

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