In the turbulent early years of Oklahoma statehood, impeachment seemed to be the legislature’s solution to difficult political issues. A number of governors were impeached and removed from office. And sometimes articles of impeachment were drawn up against anyone else who opposed the legislature’s action. Fred Branson, while serving as the chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, faced such ire from the state legislature.
Branson was originally from Georgia, having been born there in 1881. After studying law at Emory University in Atlanta, he moved to McAlester to work as deputy clerk of the Court of Appeals for Indian Territory.
He did not stay long in this position but quickly moved to Muskogee to serve in the Indian Office of the Five Tribes. After only a short stint there, he chose to open his own law firm in the Indian Capital.
This was in 1906, and the Twin Territories were wrangling with statehood issues. Branson had an interest in politics, so he ran for a position in the first legislature of the new state of Oklahoma. From there, he served as district attorney for Muskogee County for two terms. Then, he was elected a district judge for Muskogee and Wagoner counties. This led to a run for the state Supreme Court, and he was elected in 1926.
Also elected that year was Henry Johnston, Oklahoma’s seventh governor. Johnston had come to Oklahoma in the 1893 Cherokee Strip Land Run and had settled in Perry where he practiced law. He started his term as governor with fairly good relations with the legislature, but things quickly deteriorated.
Johnston’s association with the Ku Klux Klan made him political enemies with the Republican legislators. His restructuring of the Oklahoma Highway Commission also brought ire from state representatives, and lastly, his imperious personal secretary was intensely disliked by nearly everyone at the capitol.
Some legislators began to discuss impeachment of Governor Johnston. A few approached him and suggested that if he would simply fire his secretary, Mayme Hammonds, he might avoid impeachment. But loyal to a fault, Johnston refused, saying he would not sacrifice a “ewe lamb” to satisfy his critics.
Shortly after, the House met in December of 1927 to draw up articles of impeachment. Their meeting was deemed illegal, however, because by Constitutional law, only the governor could call for a special session of the legislature. Justice Fred Branson ruled that the impeachment session had no legal standing. So the representatives then issued articles of impeachment against Branson!
To keep the legislators from continuing to meet, Governor Johnston called out the National Guard to block the entrances to the House and Senate chambers. The legislators then moved their meeting to the Huskins Hotel in Oklahoma City. In the end, however, the state Senate declined to find Johnston guilty, recognizing that they could not legally do so in an unauthorized session. Charges against Branson were also dismissed. This tantrum thrown by the legislature came to be called by the press the “Ewe Lamb Rebellion.”
A year later, in the regular session of the legislature, Johnston was again impeached by the House and found guilty by the Senate of “general incompetence.” He was removed from office, and he returned to his law practice in Perry.
Fred Branson wisely chose to retire from the bench and move to Texas. There he made a fortune in oil investments. He returned to Muskogee many years later to head the Grand River Dam Authority and served in that capacity until his death in 1960.