History of the Territorial Courts
The first Arkansas territorial court of original and appellate jurisdiction convened at the Town of Arkansas [Arkansas Post], in the District of the Arkansas in the Territory of Louisiana on Monday, December 5, 1808. It consisted of a civil court for common pleas, and a criminal court of quarter sessions. Both met at the same times, and the same judges presided over each, although separate record books were kept. Francois Vaugine and Joseph Stillwell were the presiding judges. Neither was a lawyer, but both were prominent citizens. They had both resided in the area prior to the Louisiana Purchase; Vaugine was descended from a French family of Louisiana, and had lived at the Post since 1792; Stillwell, an American, had lived in the area since 1798. John Honey was the first Clerk of the Courts, which also included courts of oyer and terminer, and probate, as well as a justice of the peace court.
The Court of Quarter Sessions met on the first Monday in December and April, and later in August as well. It summonsed the grand jury and heard criminal cases. The Court of Common Pleas heard civil cases.
In April 1809 Benjamin Fooy joined the first two judges. He was originally from Holland and had settled in Esperanza [West Memphis]. He was absent in December 1809 and April 1810 but had returned for the August 1810 Term. At least two judges had to be present for the court to convene. The record book notes that only Francois Vaugine was present in December 1810, April 1811 and August 1811, and thus the court conducted no business at those times.
In December 1811 Henry Cassidy and Samuel Mosely replaced Stillwell and Fooy. The court met again the following April, and in August James Scull joined the court as a fourth judge. However, after this session, the District of Arkansas was abolished by the governor and merged with the District of New Madrid. In March 1814, the Court of Common Pleas for the County of Arkansas met at the Post. Stillwell, Vaugine and Mosely presided as Judges. In April the court met again, with Stillwell and Vaugine presiding, but "the parties litigant not being timely noticed," the court ordered that all pending causes would be continued to the next term.
The new territory began with five counties: Arkansas, Clark, Hempstead, Lawrence and Pulaski. Each county had local justice of the peace courts and over them either circuit courts or courts of common pleas. Probate courts in each county handled decedents' estates. Cases could be appealed from the county courts to the Superior Court, but there was no appeal upward from the Superior Court. By the time of statehood, the number of counties had increased to 34. From 1827 on, the superior court judges rode circuits and so sat as circuit court judges as well.
In 1824, Judge Scott killed Judge Selden in a duel. President Monroe appointed William Trimble to fill Selden's place. In 1827, the Senate voted not to renew Judge Scott's appointment, and he was replaced by Thomas P. Eskridge. In 1828, Congress approved the addition of a fourth judge to the superior court bench. James Woodson Bates was appointed to fill the new position. In 1830 Judge Trimble was replaced by Edward Cross. In 1832 Judge Bates was replaced by Charles S. Bibb, but before Judge Bibb could take the bench he died of cholera. Alexander M. Clayton was appointed to replace Judge Bibb. An impeachment attempt was launched against Judge Johnson in the fall and winter of 1832-33, but it was unsuccessful. Judge Clayton resigned in 1834. Judge Eskridge declined renomination for a third term, and so President Jackson commissioned Archibald Yell to replace him. At statehood, the four territorial judges were replaced by the dual state and federal court systems. Judge Benjamin Johnson went on to become the federal judge for the District of Arkansas.
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