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Wayne C. Williams

Wayne C. Williams

Wayne C. Williams

21st Colorado Attorney General
Term: 1924-1925

               Upon the death of Fleming, Governor Sweet appointed 55-year-old Wayne Cullen Williams as Attorney General. Williams was an accomplished man who would become known as much for his writings as for his legal acumen.

               Wayne Williams and his twin sister Estella were born on a farm near Indianola, Illinois on September 20, 1878. Many of the residents in his surrounding community had been personal acquaintances of Abraham Lincoln and in his youth Williams developed a lifelong interest in the sixteenth President that would culminate with his 1951 book, A Rail Splitter for President, a book about Lincoln’s first presidential campaign.

               Williams graduated from high school in Decatur, Illinois in 1897 and came west to Colorado to attend the University of Denver. As an undergraduate he worked at the Rocky Mountain News and as the first editor of the DU student newspaper. After three years at DU, Williams entered the law school and graduated with an L.L.B. in 1906. He set up a law practice in Denver and also became active in the Democratic Party. The 1908 Democratic National Convention was the first of eleven Democratic National Conventions to which he would be a delegate. At the 1908 convention he met the party’s nominee, William Jennings Bryan, who became his friend and political idol. Williams later wrote two books about Bryan, including a definitive biography in 1936.

               Williams married Lena Day, with whom he would have four sons. In 1912 he was elected to a Denver County Judgeship but never sat on the bench because of a restructuring of Denver government. The following year he became a Deputy District Attorney in Denver. In 1915 he was appointed to Colorado’s first Industrial Commission. During this time he continued to write for various magazines and the Rocky Mountain News. A voracious reader, he was noted for including in his Christmas card each year a recommended reading list with a critique of each book.

               When Williams was appointed Attorney General by Governor William Sweet in December 1923 (Williams would author a biography of Sweet called Sweet of Colorado in 1941) he retained all of Russel Fleming’s staff. Charles Roach, now serving under his fourth Attorney General, remained as Deputy Attorney General. In Williams’ tenure the office worked on several important cases. Williams completed the boundary dispute with New Mexico, successfully arguing the case before the U. S. Supreme Court in December, 1924. The office became deeply involved in railroad mergers and rail line abandonment because of the threat it posed to the state’s rural agrarian industry. One notable case was the reorganization of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad with the Missouri-Pacific and Western Pacific. Williams secured a rehearing of an adverse decision of the Interstate Commerce Commission and obtained important modifications in Colorado’s interests.

               Williams issued a formal opinion saying municipalities could construct their own light and power plants. When the State Utilities Commission ruled otherwise in a dispute with the City of Loveland, Williams intervened. His viewpoint was subsequently upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court. Williams, like his predecessors, also devoted considerable time to enforcing prohibition laws. His office argued fourteen criminal cases against bootleggers before the State Supreme Court and he boasted they never lost a single case. A special grand jury was set up to investigate dereliction of duty by public officials for failing to enforce the Volstead Act, which led to the indictment of the Larimer County District Attorney and Sheriff.[1]

               Attorney General Williams met with many delegations of coal miners. The miners complained about lessee-operators of mines who failed to pay for work rendered. Concerned about a repeat of violence that culminated in the deaths of seventeen people at the Ludlow Massacre, he railed against unscrupulous and immoral practices and urged the legislature to “forever prohibit” them.

               In 1923 several State Attorneys General called for a “thorough and nationwide investigation of gasoline prices” because of “sharp increases” that had recently occurred. A meeting was held in Chicago at which at least 36 states were represented. It would be a recurrent theme for the Attorneys General. Over the ensuing decades the attorneys general as a group would call for investigation of petroleum prices on numerous occasions.

Williams’ office was also heavily involved in the Colorado River Compact. By 1924, six states had ratified the agreement but Arizona refused to do so. Believing this could be problematic, he urged Colorado and the five other signatory states to ask the U. S. Supreme Court to adjudicate the rights of all seven states. This probably spurred the enactment of the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1929, which declared the Compact to be in effect. Williams wrote an article in the American Bar Association Journal about the Compact.

               After his tenure as Attorney General, Wayne Williams returned to writing and practicing law. He also traveled extensively. In 1933, after the death of his wife, he moved to Washington, D.C. to be a Special Assistant to the U. S. Attorney General in the Roosevelt administration and remained until 1940 when he returned to Denver. During this time he published another book, American Tomorrows, a political treatise stemming from his long held progressive views.

               During World War II, Williams served as Regional Counsel to the federal Office of Price Administration. After the war he lectured at Denver University on labor and social problems and continued to write articles for newspapers and magazines. A piece he wrote for the Rocky Mountain News on the growing problems in Korea was read into the Congressional Record and used by Voice of America. For his continued service to Denver University he was given a distinguished alumni award in 1950. After a life devoted to public service and literature, Wayne C. Williams died in August of 1953 at the age of 74.[2]




[1] Biennial Report of the Attorney General for 1923-1924, Colorado State Archives.

[2] Denver Post, August 16, 1953.