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Provisional and Territorial Records Guide

Supreme Court

Prior to 1841, Oregon's judicial system relied on Hudson's Bay Company justices of the peace. American settlers refused to recognize British jurisdiction, however, and the Methodist missionaries appointed their own justices of the peace which were augmented by locally established courts.

The supreme court can be traced to the "mission meetings" held February 16-18, 1841. These meetings were a direct response to the death of wealthy American entrepreneur Ewing Young. Young had not left a will or any known heirs, and a civil government was needed to probate his estate. A physician, Ira Babcock, was appointed supreme judge with probate powers. Justices of the peace, constables, and an attorney general were also appointed at the mission meetings. The only recorded duty of Oregon's first organized court system was the probate of Young's estate.

Two years later, in May 1843, public meetings were held at Champoeg to form Oregon's provisional government. The laws adopted at these meetings were ratified July 5, 1843 and prescribed the powers and duties of the supreme court. The court held two sessions annually, one at Champoeg and one at Tuality Plains. The court consisted of a supreme judge and two assistant judges. The supreme court had original jurisdiction in cases of treason, felonies, breaches of the peace, and all civil actions exceeding $50.

The first formal term of the court began in January, 1844. Law changes in 1844 provided for the election, instead of the appointment, of new judges. Oregon's court system was revised by legislation passed in June, 1844. The supreme court was replaced by a system of county circuit courts and justices of the peace. Circuit courts were granted original jurisdiction in all criminal cases and all civil actions exceeding $150, all probate and county business, and appellate jurisdiction from justice of the peace courts.

The supreme court reappeared with the passage of the Organic Act of July 26, 1845. The court was given appellate jurisdiction from all lower courts, supervisory control over Oregon's judicial system, the power to issue remedial writs, and the responsibility to advise the legislative assembly about the legality of proposed measures. Supreme court sessions convened twice a year at Oregon City.

In 1848, Congress granted territorial status to Oregon. The federal legislation which created Oregon Territory also modified the structure of the supreme court. Three judicial districts were established, with one justice of the supreme court serving each district. In addition to presiding over each US district court under their jurisdictions, these justices met annually at the seat of government as the supreme court. The duties delineated in the 1845 Organic Law were not significantly altered.

Between 1851 and 1852, the supreme court was entangled in a political controversy. The legislative assembly had passed an act in December 1851, moving the territorial capital from Oregon City to Salem. Two of the supreme court justices refused to recognize the validity of the act and held a court term in Oregon City. The other justice held a term in Salem. It took six months for the legislative assembly and the supreme court to legalize the capital's move to Salem and resume normal activities. Once settled in its new location, the supreme court remained virtually unchanged until statehood.

Series Descriptions for the Supreme Court

Probate Case Records
Probate Court Journal
Supreme Court Case Records
Supreme Court Case Register
Supreme Court Journal
Supreme Court Process Records

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320. Probate Case Records (SUPCOUR006)

1837-1855
.25 cubic feet
Calendar Microfilm

Series documents the provisional supreme court's probate function. This series consists primarily of the case records for the Ewing Young and Cornelius Rogers estates. Records include invoices, receipts, account statements, contracts, claims, depositions, inventories, and correspondence. Series is not arranged.

 

321. Probate Court Journal (SUPCOUR007)

1843-1845
.1 cubic feet
Calendar Microfilm

Series documents the probate function of the provisional government supreme court. Journal entries show county name, date of session, presiding judge's name, and a description of actions taken by the court. Actions include appointing estate administrators, executors, and appraisers; admitting wills to probate; and final settlement decisions. Series is arranged chronologically by entry date.

 

322. Supreme Court Case Records (SUPCOUR002)

1855-1859
3.5 cubic feet
Microfilm Reels 20-27 and Calendar Microfilm

Series documents cases received on appeal from US District Courts. Case records include correspondence, indentures, deeds, depositions and affidavits, orders for rehearing, orders for execution, motions, district court case records, judgments, petitions, exhibits, and justices' opinions.

Some interesting cases include United States v. Tom, which upheld the extension of the 1834 US definition of Indian Country to Oregon Territory; Joaquim Young v. Oregon Territory, which granted the estate of Ewing Young to Joaquim, his only heir, and Nimrod O'Kelly v. Oregon Territory, which upheld O'Kelly's conviction on murder charges. Series is arranged numerically by case number.

 

323. Supreme Court Case Register (SUPCOUR003)

1851-1859
1.0 cubic feet 

Series documents all cases heard by the Oregon Supreme Court. Register entries show case number, journal book and page numbers, plaintiffs and defendant's names, date transcript filed, and remarks. Series is arranged chronologically by date of case entry.

 

324. Supreme Court Journal (SUPCOUR001)

1853-1858
.25 cubic feet
Microfilm Reel 27 

Series documents daily court decisions for the June term 1853 through the August term 1858. Entries show term date, location of court, judges' names, defendant's and plaintiffs names, court decision, and clerk's recording of oaths and affidavits. Case subjects include unlawful assembly, women's property rights, contested elections, land claims, mechanics' liens, and liquor sales to Indians. Series is arranged chronologically by date of journal entry.

 

325. Supreme Court Process Records (SUPCCOUR00)

1851-1857
.1 cubic feet

Series documents actions of the Oregon Supreme Court. Records include the minutes of Chief Justice Nelson for the December 1851 term; motions, decisions, the court clerk's minutes for the December 1852 term; and case record receipts. Series is not arranged.

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Oregon Secretary of State • 136 State Capitol • Salem, OR 97310-0722
Phone: (503) 986-1523 • Fax: (503) 986-1616 • oregon.sos@state.or.us

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