Too many district courts!

Which district court is the right district court?

While we’re on the subject of Philadelphia and its records (yesterday’s mysterious Abraham Shechter settled in the City of Brotherly Love), reader Joan Peake ran into a snag recently with too many similarly-named courts in the Philadelphia of the late 1820s. A court case mentioned in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1829 reported an action in a Philadelphia district court, and she wasn’t sure exactly which court that was.

No wonder. There were three courts in Philadelphia at the time with “district” as part of their names. There was the Eastern District of the Supreme Court. There was the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. And there was the Philadelphia District Court. Keeping them straight sometimes requires a scorecard.

Philadelphia Inquirer legal notice 1829

The news report in question1 was a legal notice to creditors in the case of John Lloyd v. Eli Lloyd and others,2 an action in partition,3 to show up at the auditor’s office on an afternoon in January 1830 prepared to prove whatever claims they had against a fund in court.4 The case, according to the notice, was No. 160, March Term 1829, in the District Court of the City and County of Philadelphia.

So… a whirlwind tour through Pennsylvania judicial history.5 The Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the Courts of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, Bucks and Chester Counties were all created by the Judiciary Act of 1722.6 The Constitution of 1776 established Courts of Sessions, Courts of Common Pleas and Orphans’ Courts in each county.7 A new constitution in 1790 grouped the Common Pleas courts into judicial circuits under the administration of president judges.8

The Supreme Court was broken into two districts in 1806. The Eastern District was made up of 23 counties including Philadelphia County. In 1807, Philadelphia and 10 other counties stayed in the Eastern District after the Middle District was formed. By 1809, two more counties were moved out of the Eastern District. The districts weren’t used between 1826 and 1834, but were put back into action then with Philadelphia and eight other counties in the Eastern District. There have been a lot of boundary changes for the districts over the years and, today, only Philadelphia County is in the Eastern District.9

The title of that Court was and is the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Eastern District, and that’s not the court of Lloyd v. Lloyd.

Now while Pennsylvania was setting up its own courts, the federal government was creating its courts as well. The Judiciary Act of 1789 created 13 original United States District Courts, including the District of Pennsylvania.10 Then in 1818, the Pennsylvania federal court was divided into two districts: the Eastern District in Philadelphia and the Western District in Pittsburgh.11 (The Middle District wasn’t created until 1901.12)

The title of that Court was and is the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and that’s not the court of Lloyd v. Lloyd either.

It turns out that by 1811 the Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia — the every-day state trial court — was drowning in lawsuits and other court business. The Legislature tried to ease the crisis by creating what was, in effect, a super-Common Pleas Court. This new court, created by the Act of March 30, 1811, P.L. 138, was given the task of deciding the bigger cases — those where the amount at issue was more than $100. The court met for the first time on 6 May 1811 and for the last time on 4 Jan 1875, after being abolished in the Constitution of 1874.13

And the title of that Court was District Court of the City and County of Philadelphia, and that was the court of Lloyd v. Lloyd.

The records for this Court are held today by the Philadelphia City Archives but here’s a warning. The search box at the upper left of the page can be wonky. Instead, use what experienced Pennsylvania genealogists14 use: the link in the box on the left to PHILS — the Philadelphia Information Locator System (direct link here). Where you want to end up is Record Group 22, Records of the Prothonotary15 of the District Court, here.

Now… to find out what all those Lloyds were fighting over…


SOURCES

  1. Philadelphia Inquirer, 30 Dec 1829, p. 3, col. 1; digital images, GenealogyBank.com (http://www.genealogybank.com : accessed 14 Feb 2012).
  2. The legal term often used is “et al.,” short for et alii, which simply means “and others.” Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 438, “et al.”
  3. “The dividing of lands held by joint tenants, coparceners, or tenants in common, into distinct portions, so that they may hold them in severalty. And, in a less technical sense, any division of real or personal property between co-owners or coproprietors.” Ibid., 878, “partition.”
  4. A fund in court is simply money held by, but not belonging to, the court. It’s kept by a court officer awaiting the court’s direction on how and to whom to distribute it. The term was in common use at the time, see for example Lesher v. Gillingham, 17 Serg. & Rawle 123 (Pa. Supreme Ct., Eastern District, 1827), and is still used today.
  5. See generally “A Short History of Pennsylvania’s Courts,” The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania (http://www.pacourts.us/Links/Public/CourtHistory.htm : accessed 14 Feb 2012).
  6. An Act for Establishing Courts of Judicature in this Province, 22 May 1722 (3 St. L. 298, Ch. 255), Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau (http://www.palrb.us/statutesatlarge/17001799/1722/0/act/0255.pdf : accessed 14 Feb 2012).
  7. Section 26, Constitution of Pennsylvania – September 28, 1776, Avalon Project (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/default.asp : accessed 14 Feb 2012).
  8. Sec. IV, Article V, Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania 1790, Pennsylvania Constitution, Duquesne University School of Law (http://www.duq.edu/law/pa-constitution/index.cfm : accessed 14 Feb 2012).
  9. Series Description, Record Group 33, Records of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Eastern District, Pennsylvania State Archives (http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/bah/dam/rg/sd/r33e1sd.htm : accessed 14 Feb 2012).
  10. Act to Establish the Judicial Courts of the United States, 1 Stat. 73 (1789); digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation,” Library of Congress (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwsl.html : accessed 14 Feb 2012.)
  11. Ibid., Act to Divide the State of Pennsylvania into Two Judicial Districts, 3 Stat. 462 (1818).
  12. Act to Create a New Federal Judicial District in Pennsylvania, to be called the Middle District, 31 Stat. 880 (1901); “United States Statutes at Large,” Constitution Society (http://constitution.org/uslaw/sal/sal.htm : accessed 14 Feb 2012).
  13. Frank M. Eastman, Courts and Lawyers of Pennsylvania; a History, 1623-1923, 4 vols. (New York : American Historical Soc., 1922), vol. 2: 355-357; digital images, State Library of Pennsylvania (http://pilot.passhe.edu:8020/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?DB=local&PAGE=First : accessed 14 Feb 2012).
  14. Thanks go to Kimberly Powell for this tip!
  15. A fancy word for clerk of the court. See Black, A Dictionary of Law, 958, “Prothonotary.”
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