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Mitchell, William De Witt


William de Witt Mitchell was a distinguished lawyer who became the fifty-fourth attorney general of the United States.

Mitchell was born on September 9, 1874, in Winona, Minnesota. He was the son of William Mitchell, a distinguished justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court for whom the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul is named. The younger Mitchell left Minnesota at the age of fourteen to attend preparatory school in New Jersey. He then entered Yale University to study electrical engineering, but during vacations back in Minnesota, he pursued his interest in the law, spending time discussing legal issues with his father and with other judges and attorneys who were family friends. As a result, after two years at Yale, he transferred to the University of Minnesota for pre-law studies. After receiving his bachelor of arts degree in 1895 and his bachelor of laws degree in 1896, he was admitted to the bar and took a position as a law clerk with Stringer and Seymour, a St. Paul law firm.

When the spanish-american war broke out in 1898, Mitchell enlisted in the Fifteenth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, where he became a second lieutenant and served as a judge advocate for the Second U.S. Army Corp. When the war ended, he returned to St. Paul and Stringer and Seymour. After his father lost his seat on the state supreme court in an election, Mitchell and the elder Mitchell established a law partnership with two other lawyers. Though his father died in 1900, Mitchell continued to practice law until another war—World War I—intervened. Mitchell again returned to military service as an infantry officer until 1919, when he rejoined his law firm, becoming a senior partner in 1922.

"We are going to have an outburst against this discovery business unless we can hedge it with some appearance of safety against fishing expeditions."
—William Mitchell

In 1925, through an influential friend in Washington, Mitchell's name was brought to the

attention of President calvin coolidge, who was seeking to fill the position of solicitor general. Coolidge, a Republican, offered Mitchell, a Democrat, the job, passing over several better-known Republican candidates. As solicitor general, under the direction of the U.S. attorney general, Mitchell was primarily responsible for representing the government of the United States before the U.S. Supreme Court in cases in which the United States had an interest. Mitchell, though he had intended to hold the position for only two years and then return to private practice, was solicitor general until 1929, appearing before the Court in thirty-four cases.

That year, upon the recommendation of several justices on the Supreme Court, newly elected President herbert hoover appointed Mitchell to be U.S. attorney general. Though his new role involved a wide and daunting range of responsibilities (including acting as a member of the president's cabinet), Mitchell continued to occasionally argue important cases himself before the High Court. One significant case was Okanogan, Methow, San Poelis, Nespelem, Colville, and Lake Indian Tribes or Bands of State of Washington v. United States, 279 U.S. 655, 49 S. Ct. 463, 73 L. Ed. 894 (1929), better known as the Pocket Veto case. In that decision the Supreme Court upheld the president's power to veto a bill by failing to return it to Congress when Congress was in recess.

At the end of the Hoover administration, Mitchell returned to private practice, joining a New York law firm. Twelve years later, in 1945, Mitchell was appointed counsel for the Joint Congressional Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack. Though he was selected unanimously and had virtually unfettered access to all departments, records, and personnel involved in the incident, Mitchell was unhappy with the slow pace of the committee's inquiry and left the position after less than three months to again return to private practice in New York. While practicing he served on several important commissions and was chairman of the Committee on Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which was charged with redrafting rules governing practice in the federal courts. He died on August 24, 1955, in Syosset, New York, at the age of eighty-one.

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