The Lowdown on Louisiana Courts, 1803-1822

A first step to understanding Louisiana’s complex legal history in my period is simply understanding which Courts were operative where and when. This is a much more confusing matter than you might think. Most of the court records of the Territorial and early State periods are held by the City Archives division of the New Orleans Public Library.  The NOPL also includes Online Indexes to many of the available court records. These are extremely useful; however, they don’t explain, clearly and in one place, what all the various Courts were, when they existed, and what their jurisdiction was; that is the purpose of this post. Here then is a list of Courts with brief, clear explanations:

  • Court of Pleas, 1/9/1804 to 9/29/1804. This was the Court for the period when Claiborne ruled Louisiana as Acting Governor with the powers of a Spanish Intendant. It was made obsolete by the Territorial Government of the Orleans territory as per the Breckenridge Bill. There are no surviving records for the Court of Pleas, only a Minute Book with 776 entries for this 9-month period. The Minute Book itself is online as part of the LOUISiana Digital Library; an index to the Minute Book entries is here.
  • Orleans County Court, 1804 to 1807.  In its first session the Territorial Legislature divided the Orleans Territory into 12 counties, and authorized Governor Claiborne to appoint a judge for each County Court. Claiborne appointed James Workman to serve as Orleans County Judge on May 1st, 1805, and his court became the main civil court for New Orleans. It also had jurisdiction in all non-capital criminal matters, and, starting in 1806, all criminal cases brought against slaves including capital ones. The court records are closed to researchers but documents are online as part of the LOUISiana Digital Library; the index of the Court’s civil cases is here and the index to its criminal cases is here.
  • New Orleans City Court, 1807 to 1813. In 1807 the legislature divided the Territory into 19 parishes (but, determined to confuse all future historians, kept the 12 Counties for purposes of property taxation and legislative districting). Each parish now got a Parish Court except Orleans, which got the new City Court, which replaced Workman’s Orleans County Court (and Workman left the Territory in the wake of the Burr Conspiracy in early 1807). The original records of this court are open to researchers by appointment; a searchable online index of its 3,595 cases is here. The Court also kept a separate Insolvents Docket and the index to those 383 cases is here. Finally, the index of criminal cases is shared with that of the Orleans County Court, covering only 242 cases over the period 1804-1813, online here.
  • Orleans Territory Superior Court, 1804 to 1813. This was the highest court throughout the Territorial period, made obsolete only by statehood (in 1812) and the institution of the Louisiana State Supreme Court (in 1813). The Superior Court originally sat only in New Orleans, but starting in 1806 was required to go on circuit throughout the Territory from June 1 to November 1. Unfortunately, only the New Orleans records, and none of the circuit records, have survived. The surviving records (about 3,500 cases for this 10-year period) are open to researchers by appointment. An index rather eccentrically divided into two parts — one alphabetical by plaintiff’s surname, the other chronological by docket number — is online here.
  • Orleans Parish Court, 1813-1846. This court inherited the jurisdiction of the New Orleans City Court under statehood, including that court’s criminal jurisdiction over slaves. This court was presided over by a single appointed judge and lasted until the new Consitution in 1845. Its records are well preserved including not only suit records, docket books, minute books, but also specialized things like emancipation petitions. Out of over 9,000 total court cases I estimate about 3,000 pertain to the period of my greatest interest, 1813-22. The complete suit records have been microfilmed by the Mormons and are available at NOPL (and elsewhere). The full details including an excellent online index of suit records are online here.
  • Louisiana First District Court, 1813-1846. The First Judicial District covered Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, and St. John the Baptist parishes, and this District Court had original civil and criminal jurisdiction as well as appeal jurisdiction from the lower Parish Courts — except that of Orleans Parish, whose appeals went straight to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Got that? Well I don’t, and I’m still a little confused about how the 1st Dis. Ct. fits into the picture. In any case its records like those of the concurrent Orleans Parish Court are well preserved (includig manuscript minutes, dockets, indexes, etc) and the online index to its almost 13,000 records is here.
  • Orleans Parish Court of Probates, 1805-1846. Exactly what it says it is; this court operated without interruption from Territorial Period through statehood. A complete index, listing every succession and whether there was a) a will and b) an estate inventory, is here; and an index to numbered cases, in which a challenge or other suit led to a civil action in the Court of Probates, is here.
  • Louisiana State Supreme Court. The only court on this list whose records are not held by the New Orleans Public Library; and I haven’t yet located where they are online. I’ll be using Mark Fernandez’ footnotes for this, or good old Google..
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