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The County Courts in Antebellum Kentucky

The County Courts in Antebellum Kentucky

Copyright Date: 1972
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    The County Courts in Antebellum Kentucky
    Book Description:

    Although an important part of local government, particularly in the South, in their early years the county courts have not been thoroughly investigated. This book offers the first comprehensive examination of the county courts during the antebellum era in one southern state Kentucky, placing them in the context of its constitutional and political structure. More administrative than judicial in function, the courts were the means of providing most services of government for the people. This range of activity is fully discussed here, from road building to tax collecting to caring for the poor.

    Robert M. Ireland also explores the political aspects of the courts as well as their sometimes complex relationship with the state legislature and with the growing towns and cities. The courts, however, often failed in performing their duties, and the justices, being appointed, became a self-perpetuating oligarchy who seldom consulted the wishes of the people. Elected officials and the voters themselves thus grew increasingly alienated by the working of the courts. Their resentment culminated finally in a constitutional reform that in 1850 created an elective system of county government in Kentucky.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6345-1
    Subjects: History, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    The principal officers of county government in Kentucky, as throughout colonial America and the antebellum South, were the justices of the peace, and the principal institution, which the magistrates formed collectively, was the county court. This institution as it existed in Kentucky was the end product of centuries of constitutional development, having been most strongly influenced by English tradition. Englishmen invented the county, the commission of peace, and the justices who implemented it. During the late middle ages and throughout the early modern period these local magistrates were empowered individually or in groups to administer the poor laws, supervise the...

    (pp. 7-17)

    The justices of the peace of the counties constituted the membership of the county courts. In addition to serving on the county courts, justices of the peace individually performed a wide variety of functions including the trial of petty civil and criminal matters, the taking of depositions, the certifying of legal documents, and the impaneling of commissions to inspect turnpikes. Under the first state Constitution, which operated until 1800, the governor selected the magistrates with the advice and consent of the Senate. Thereafter the courts filled their own vacancies by recommending two persons to the chief executive, who was bound...

    (pp. 18-34)

    The business of the county courts was substantial, encompassing executive, legislative, and judicial functions. The most significant and sometimes controversial elements of the jurisdiction of the courts were wills and estates, the poor and the vagrant, guardians and apprentices, ferries, milldams, bastardy, emancipation, Negro felonies, the fining of officers, appeals from magistrates, roads, taxes, appropriations, towns, and patronage. The last five concerns will be treated in other chapters. The remainder of this important business, most of which was judicial in nature, will be discussed here.

    A survey of county court order books indicates that most of the judicial business of...

    (pp. 35-61)

    Much of the business of the county courts concerned matters of taxation and appropriations, roads, and other internal improvements. While some phases of this business were judicial, most were either executive or legislative. Both the extent of the county courts’ authority in these cases, usually involving substantial delegations of power from the legislature, and the controversies they aroused require special consideration.

    The county courts played an important part in the assessment and collection of state taxes. From the beginning of statehood they were empowered to lay the counties off into tax districts, to appoint tax commissioners for each district who...

    (pp. 62-78)

    It is not surprising that spirited battles were fought to secure control of the county courts, whose power resided not only in their combination of executive, judicial, and legislative functions but also in their ability to fill their own vacancies and in their domination of almost all local patronage. Indeed a major part of county political warfare was waged to secure appointments to the courts. It will be recalled that whenever a vacancy occurred on a county court, the Constitution of 1799 provided that a majority of the justices of the peace should recommend two persons to the governor and...

    (pp. 79-104)

    The political battles of local government in antebellum Kentucky were not waged exclusively over control of the county courts themselves. Politicians also regularly warred over the dispensation of county court patronage. Under the Constitution of 1799 the court appointed virtually every officer of the county: clerk, constables, jailer, coroner, surveyor, sheriff, and county attorney, all of whom served for life except the latter two, who served for two- and one-year terms respectively, and the jailer, who served at the pleasure of the court. Most of the conflict concerned the office of sheriff, the most powerful position in the county. Financially...

    (pp. 105-122)

    The county courts were not only the nucleus of local government but also a major agent of state government. In addition to such perennial tasks as maintaining roads and collecting taxes, the courts performed special missions for the state such as procuring and surveying land for seminaries of learning. Indeed the courts almost always acted as agents of the state.

    Almost all the powers of the county courts were legislatively granted, for although they were of constitutional origin during most of the antebellum period, their jurisdiction was dependent upon the General Assembly. Their powers seemed to increase steadily as the...

  12. Chapter 7 TOWN AND COUNTRY
    (pp. 123-144)

    The county courts had a substantial and sometimes abrasive connection with the towns and cities of antebellum Kentucky. Specific statutes enacted by the legislature between 1796 and 1828 and more general grants of authority enabled the courts and their members to mingle significantly and often provocatively in the affairs of towns. After 1827 some of the larger towns began to gain constitutional immunity from county court interference, yet on several occasions this state of semiautonomy served to heighten rather than reduce tensions between the two local governmental bodies.

    A statute of 1796 authorized county courts to establish towns upon petition,...

    (pp. 145-170)

    The county court system of antebellum Kentucky was replete with institutional deficiencies, which along with the frictions of politics caused its downfall at midcentury. Inattentiveness, cumbersomeness, disorderliness, and inexpertness pervaded the local tribunals.

    The ever-increasing numbers of justices of the peace and county courts and the lack of a general requirement that each member of the court be present at terms other than those set aside to certify claims and district roads produced widespread complaints that many of the magistrates frequently failed to attend their monthly courts or were not punctual. One critic argued that it was necessary to “hunt...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 171-176)

    The county courts affected the people of antebellum Kentucky more profoundly than any other governmental institution. The miller, the apprentice, the heir, the ferry operator, the tavern owner, the land speculator, the profligate, the vagrant, the poor, the taxpayer, the orphan, and the slave all dealt with the local tribunals. The business of the courts encompassed a series of legal specialties in combination with significant prerogatives of government and patronage.

    Despite their great powers, the courts were not without countervailing institutions. The governor served as a check on their dispensation of county patronage. The legislature delegated and withdrew the courts’...

  15. Governors of Kentucky, 1792–1851
    (pp. 177-177)
  16. Kentucky County Maps
    (pp. 178-180)
  17. An Essay on Authorities
    (pp. 181-186)
  18. Index
    (pp. 187-194)