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Nelson Phillips (1873-1939)

Associate Justice, Texas Supreme Court, 1912-1915
Chief Justice, Texas Supreme Court, 1915-1921

Nelson Phillips was born May 3, 1873 in Jefferson, Texas. His father had served in the Confederate army for four years during the Civil War. When Phillips was eight years old, he moved with his family to Hillsboro, Texas, where he attended local schools until the age of fifteen. He then attended Bingham Military Academy in Melbane, North Carolina for two years. There he began studying law, and when he returned to Hillsboro he worked in his father's bank and was guided in private law studies beginning in 1894 in the office of Tom S. Smith, who later became a Texas attorney general. Phillips reportedly was seen nearly every evening at around dusk in the 1890s riding his horse across the Hillsboro courthouse square to its southwest corner, where he would hitch the horse to a post and study law books half the night under dim light in the old building.

Phillips was admitted to the bar in 1895 and joined the firm of Smith and Wear, where he had studied. He was married in the fall of 1896, and he and his wife had a son. In 1904, Gov. S.W.T. Lanham appointed Phillips judge of the Eighteenth Judicial District, which encompassed Hill, Johnson, and Bosque counties. When his term expired two years later, he moved to Dallas and practiced law for six years. In 1910 he served as chair of the Texas democratic convention.

Following the resignation of associate justice William F. Ramsey in 1911, Gov. O. B. Colquitt appointed Phillips to succeed him in 1912. He served as associate justice until May 1915, when he became chief justice following the death of Thomas J. Brown. He served as chief justice until resigning in November 1921. He was highly regarded by his peers for his deep knowledge of the law.

Following his court service, Phillips returned to Dallas, where he practiced law with his son, Nelson Phillips Jr. Nelson Phillips was remembered as an aristocratic southern gentleman and a dignified judge who kept a large library, was a brilliant conversationalist with an abundant store of anecdotes, and smoked a cigar incessantly. He died of chronic heart disease at his Dallas home March 31, 1939 shortly before his sixty-sixth birthday.


Court Holds Services For Judge Phillips, 2 Texas Bar Journal 203 (1939).

Hill, Vernon B. A Texas Portrait: Nelson Phillips, 23 Texas Bar Journal 640-641, 689-690.

Justice Phillips Was Picturesque Figure, 2 Texas Bar Journal 133 (1939).

Walker, Kaye A. Phillips, Nelson, Handbook of Texas Online (last updated June 6, 2001).

Extended bibliography

Adams, Frank Carter. 4 Texas Democracy 221 (Austin, Texas: Democratic Historical Association, 1937).

Davenport, Jewette Harbert. The History of the Supreme Court of the State of Texas 272 (Austin, Texas: Southern Law Book Publishers, 1917).

Richardson, Thomas Clarence. 4 East Texas, Its History and Its Makers 438 (New York, New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1940).

Speer, Ocie. Texas Jurists 106 (Austin, Texas: the author, 1936).

The Texas Magazine 13 (Houston, Texas: The Texas Publishing Co., Oct., 1909).

Who's Who in Texas 31 (Dallas, Texas: Who's Who Publishing Co., 1931).

Additional information available in Southwestern Historical Quarterly as follow:
Volume 25, page 148
Volume 44, page 304
Volume 60, page 1, 16, 18
Volume 67, page 229

Additional information available in Texas Bar Journal as follow:
Volume 2, page 133, 203
Volume 23, page 640

Death Closes Texas Judge's Vivid Career, Dallas Morning News, Apr. 1, 1939.