He is chiefly remembered as the author of Vosburg v. Putney (1890).
Harlow Orton was called to the bar in 1838. Orton practiced law for five years.
In 1843, Indiana Governor Samuel Bigger (a Whig) appointed Orton circuit judge for Porter County, Indiana.
Orton served as an Indiana judge for four years. In 1847, he moved to Milwaukee, in the Wisconsin Territory, and again set himself up as a private lawyer
In 1852, Orton moved to Madison, Wisconsin to serve as legal counsel and private secretary for Whig Governor of Wisconsin Leonard J. Farwell. He was succeeded by Democrat William R. Taylor.
In the 1855 Wisconsin general election, Republican Coles Bashford narrowly defeated Democrat William A. Barstow.
Orton was Bashford"s lawyer in this proceeding. In 1858, Orton was again elected to the Assembly, succeeding Democrat Frank Gault in a 5th District which now included the Towns of Dane, Vienna, Westport, Springfield, Middleton, and Madison (but only the 1st Ward of the City of Madison), and described his profession as "Captain of the Dane Cavalry". He was assigned to the standing committees on the judiciary and the militia.
In 1859, Orton was appointed judge for the 9th Judicial Circuit to fill the vacancy left by Luther South. Dixon, who became a Wisconsin justice.
(Orton was succeeded in the Assembly by Republican Leonard Farwell) Orton resigned as circuit judge in 1865 and returned to private law practice. Orton served as dean of the University of Wisconsin Law School from 1869 to 1874.
He was elected a final time to the Assembly in 1870, this time unopposed, as an independent or "people"s" candidate. He described himself as ""a conservative democrat, or democratic-whig, or independent, believes in a strong government of the people".
(Democratic incumbent Alden Sanborn was not running for re-election) He was succeeded in 1871 (the Assembly having been redistricted in the meantime) by Democrat John Gurnee.
Orton ran for Congress in 1876 as a Democrat, against Republican incumbent Lucien B. Caswell, but lost by 348 votes (55% of the vote). And served one term as mayor of Madison in 1877. In 1877, Wisconsin amended its constitution to create two more seats on the and Orton was elected.
Orton became the chief justice when Chief Justice William Lyon retired in 1894.
Orton was on the until he died July 4, 1895.
He was elected as a Whig member of the Wisconsin State Assembly from Dane County"s 5th Assembly district (the then-Village of Madison, and the Towns of Town of Madison, Blooming Grove, "Burk", Westport, Vienna, and Windsor) in 1853, succeeding Democrat Mathew Roche.