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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

In the year 1840, in the state of South Carolina, a man named E.B. Bronson claimed to have been properly elected an Ordinary in that jurisdiction. But M.W. Hunter, who had held the office before Bronson’s election, refused to give it up, saying he was entitled to serve for life as long as he did the job well or, in legal lingo, during “good behavior.”1

An Ordinary, in South Carolina at the time, was a judicial officer in what was called the Court of the Ordinary. It was the forerunner to the Probate Court, created by the South Carolina Constitution of 1868.2 He was a “judicial officer, … clothed by statute with powers in regard to wills, probate, administration, guardianship, etc.”3

As might be expected, a lawsuit ensued to determine who was entitled to the office — the man who said he couldn’t be turned out of office (Hunter) or the man who said he’d been elected (Bronson). Since there had been a statute passed in 1833 limiting the term of the Ordinary to four years and a state constitutional amendment before that allowing the Legislature to determine terms of office, the outcome was pretty much a slam dunk: the job was Bronson’s.4

So why was the case called State ex rel. Bronson v. Hunter, and not just Bronson v. Hunter? This type of case name shows up a lot in the legal cases genealogists look at in trying to figure out what our ancestors were up to. So what’s with this ex rel. stuff in the name of a legal case anyway?

“Ex rel.” in a case name is the abbreviation for the Latin phrase “ex relatione”. It translates as upon “relation or information” and it’s usually used this way:

Legal proceedings which are instituted by the attorney general (or other proper person) in the name and behalf of the state, but on the information and at the instigation of an individual who has a private interest in the matter, are said to be taken “on the relation” (ex relatione) of such person, who is called the “relator.” Such a cause is usually entitled thus: “State ex rel. Doe v. Roe.”5

Here, of course, it was Bronson who was the person with the private interest in the matter — he wanted to go to work in the job to which he’d been elected. So he was the relator: “The person upon whose complaint, or at whose instance, an information or writ of quo warranto is filed, and who is quasi the plaintiff in the proceeding.”6

Sigh… don’t you love it when one definition makes you have to go look up something else just to understand what it means? So what’s a “quo warranto”? It’s a special kind of legal action for exactly the situation that Bronson found himself in. Talk about a narrow little legal pigeon-hole — it was “a civil remedy … now usually employed for trying the title to a corporate or other franchise, or to a public or corporate office.”7

So in this particular case, it was State ex rel. Bronson v. Hunter because the action was brought by the State at Bronson’s request to determine who was the real Ordinary after Bronson’s election.

There’s one other fairly common use of the phrase ex relatione in old court reports: you’ll see it when the reporter writing up the account of the case (not a newspaper reporter, mind you, but the court reporter) wasn’t there personally but, instead, was writing it up based on what he was told by someone else who was there.8


 
SOURCES

  1. State ex rel. Bronson v. Hunter, 1 Cheves 288 (S.C., 1840).
  2. “Probate Court History,” Probate Court, Georgetown County, South Carolina (http://www.georgetowncountysc.org/probate/ : accessed 22 May 2013).
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 855, “ordinary.”
  4. State ex rel. Bronson v. Hunter, 1 Cheves 288, 292 (S.C., 1840).
  5. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 447, “ex relatione.”
  6. Ibid., 1016, “relator.”
  7. Ibid., 986, “quo warranto.”
  8. Ibid., 447, “ex relatione.”
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