Last month, Halloween had us reflecting on the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Now, as Thanksgiving approaches, we’re reminded of the origins of our country and our legal system. This line of thought roused our curiosity: What was the first major court decision in the United States? For that matter, what was the first major decision in Indiana, or even the world?
Indiana officially became a state in December of 1816. Prior to that time, a General Court of three judges presided over the Indiana Territory, which included the present states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin. In March of 1817, the Federal District Court for the State of Indiana was established, consisting of three judges appointed by the Governor for seven-year terms. Benjamin Parke was appointed as the first district judge, and the court met in Corydon on May 5, 1817. In 1818, Judge Benjamin Parke upheld the constitutionality of the federal statute permitting the return of fugitive slaves to the states from which they had fled. In later decisions, the State Supreme Court would enforce the new Constitution’s prohibitions against slavery and eradicate legal bondage in Indiana.
The United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the only court specifically established by the Constitution. Under the Judiciary Act of 1789, the court was first implemented. The number of Supreme Court Justices is determined by Congress, not the Constitution; the court was originally made up of six members, now nine. The first United States Chief Justice was John Jay, and the first docketed case was Van Staphorst v. Maryland in 1791; however, the suit was settled before oral arguments. The court’s first recorded decision was West v. Barnes, also 1791.
William West was a Rhode Island farmer who owed a mortgage on his farm to the Jenckes family from Providence. West made payments on the mortgage for twenty years, before asking the state’s permission to hold a lottery to help pay off the remainder. Because of West’s status as a former revolutionary militia general, the state granted him permission. West tendered payment for his mortgage in the resulting paper money — as allowed by state statute — by “lodging” the funds with a state judge to be collected within ten days. David Leonard Barnes, an heir of the Jenckes, brought suit in federal court, arguing that the payment must be in gold or silver, not paper. The court favored Barnes. West then attempted to appeal to the Supreme Court on a writ of error but lost on a procedural issue and was forced to give up his farm.
Even the earliest civilizations had some form of legal systems, and records of laws and civil codes have been found as far back as 3000 BC. This suggests that there were legal decisions just as ancient. However, the earliest known court case occurred in 1850 BC Mesopotamia and was recorded on a clay tablet. According to the tablet, a temple employee was killed by three men. The victim’s wife knew about the murder but remained silent. Eventually, the men and the woman were charged with murder, and nine witnesses testified against the accused. However, two witnesses came forward in defense of the wife, claiming that she had been abused in her marriage and had no part in the murder. The three men were found guilty and executed in front of the victim’s house, but the widow was pardoned.
It’s always fascinating to look back on our collective legal history. This retrospection is a great reminder of how our justice systems started and how far they have come.