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Indiana Commission on Public Records

ICPR > State Archives > Collections > Posey County Circuit Court Historical Records at the Indiana State Archives > An introduction to Posey County, its history and its court records > The Judicial Structure in Indiana: Northwest Territory Period 1787 - 1800 The Judicial Structure in Indiana: Northwest Territory Period 1787 - 1800

Territorial Courts: In 1787 the Continental Congress enacted the famous "Ordinance for the Government of the Territory Northwest of the Ohio River." The Ordinance provided for a Northwest Territory governed by a governor and three judges, with laws that prohibited slavery, encouraged public education, and guaranteed religious freedom and civil rights to its people.

The first governor, Arthur St.Clair, was appointed by Congress, which also selected Samuel Holden Parsons, John Armstrong, and James Mitchell Varnum as the Territorial Judges. The seat of government was established at Marietta, Ohio, and the first collection of statutes adopted for the Northwest Territory was the Maxwell Code. The original courts for the Territory were constituted by Congress on August 23, 1788. A general or circuit court was established for the entire territory, which could be held by all three judges, any two, or by one alone. It met annually at Marietta in October, at Cincinnati in March, and at Detroit, Vincennes, and Kaskaskia, when one of the judges was able to reach those places.

This court was a common law tribunal without chancery powers. The decisions of common law courts were based on statute or case law, or founded on custom and usage and confirmed by subsequent judgments. In other words, these courts were based on customary law and legal precedents. Chancery courts, on the other hand, worked from a system of rules and principles which gave fair and just settlement in each case. The Territorial court had original as well as appellate jurisdiction in all civil and criminal cases. In capital and divorce cases it possessed exclusive jurisdiction. It could review, revise and reverse the decisions of all courts subordinate to it. The Supreme Court of the United States could not review it decisions.

Types of Courts: Circuit courts were established throughout the Territory in the county seats. Only a territorial judge could preside over these courts and for this purpose the judges rode the circuit. One judge alone could hold court, though frequently two or more sat together. Besides the regular sessions, supposed to be held quarterly, the judges could hold special sessions when occasion warranted.

The highest of the local courts were the Common Pleas and the Quarter Sessions. The former was a civil court having jurisdiction over civil pleas between citizens of the same county. Endless litigation featured prominently in Anglo-American frontier society, and these courts were constantly busy. Three Common Pleas Justices usually sat together, one of whom had to be a lawyer, though one of them, the lawyer, frequently held court alone.

The Quarter Sessions were of equal rank with the Common Pleas and were usually presided over by the same justices. They had jurisdiction over petty crimes and misdemeanors, such as gambling, assault and battery, and drunkenness. The justices could issue a Common Law writ (e.g., summons or subpoena) for apprehending a criminal and receive bail after the culprit was arrested. If the evidence showed that a felony had been committed, the justice "bound-over" the criminal to the Circuit Court.

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