In 1864, the people elected Cornelius Brosnan, one of three men to serve as a justice on the first Nevada Supreme Court
bench. He had only lived in Virginia City
since 1862. The growing number of lawsuits over the Comstock mines
attracted Brosnan to Nevada, where he opened his law office.
He promptly jumped into politics and was instrumental in creating the laws of the Nevada Territory. He served in the Second Territorial Legislature and the Constitutional Conventions in 1863 and 1864. In the 1863 legislature and the 1864 convention, he served with the man who replaced him on the Nevada Supreme Court bench, J. Neely Johnson.
On December 4, 1864, Brosnan and the other original justices (Henry O. Beatty
and James F. Lewis) took their oath of office for terms that began in January 1865. The Nevada Constitution provided that the original justices draw lots to determine who would serve a term of two years, four years and six years. From then on, the terms were for six years. The man who drew the shortest term served as the first chief justice, then, the four-year term holder, followed by the six-year term justice. Brosnan drew the six-year term (1864 to 1870), but he died in 1867 before he donned the chief justice’s robe.
Brosnan’s political career began long before he moved to Nevada. Born in Ireland in 1813 and educated there, Cornelius Brosnan immigrated to New York State in 1831. He taught general sciences at Plattsburg College and read the law.
Admitted to the New York State bar in 1841, he practiced there, until he sailed for California. Meanwhile, he married Sophia Nelson, daughter of Wolfred Nelson, the celebrated Canadian patriot, and they became the parents of a son, who died in infancy.
In 1846, the voters elected Brosnan on the Loco-Foco Democrat ticket (a protest group against the corrupt Tammany Hall organization), as the Onondaga County treasurer. A major mistake derailed Brosnan’s political career.
In 1848, the county treasury was in default by more than $7,000. He had lent public funds to John Tomlinson, one of the sureties on his official bond. Apparently, this type of lending practice was common at the time because people believed that the public money should be invested to generate revenue. Public treasurers routinely lent out their “idle cash.” Unfortunately, Tomlinson died in a railway accident with no assets to repay the loan or replace the loss and Brosnan was responsible for the county’s missing money.
In 1850, Brosnan resigned from office and sailed for California and crossed the Isthmus of Panama to set up a law practice in San Francisco. At first, he belonged to the Democratic Party, but he changed to the Union Party by 1861.
In 1862, he moved to Nevada and joined the ranks of politicians. He served in the Territorial Legislature and in the two Constitutional Conventions. In the second constitutional convention, he served as the chair of the Judiciary Committee. The people fondly dubbed him the “Gray Eagle of the Union Party.” Yet, he had higher aspirations and sought a slot on the court bench. There, his political path collided with Henry Beatty’s, one of the other original Nevada Supreme Court justices.
In August 1864, when a vacancy occurred on the Territorial Storey County district court
bench, 49 members of the Storey County Bar meet in Virginia City to nominate a replacement. Brosnan and Beatty tossed their hats in the ring to seek this judicial slot.
In the balloting, Richard Mesick collected 26 votes; Beatty received 21, while Brosnan garnered two. The attorneys telegraphed President Abraham Lincoln their nomination. Ultimately, the territorial position remained vacant because Nevada became a state.
Nonetheless, the Republicans nominated Brosnan in October for the Nevada Supreme Court. Despite his disastrous showing earlier that year, he received 9,838 votes, the most votes cast for the candidates for the supreme court in the general election in November.
His luck finally ran out, and in late 1866, he traveled to the California coast because of his poor health. On April 21, 1867, he died, probably of consumption (tuberculosis), in San Jose, California at age 53. He failed to complete his term or to serve as the chief justice of the Nevada Supreme Court.