Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Chancery Suits and the Court of Ordinary

Holly asks:
”I am ordering a document called a Chancery suit from Lawrence County, Alabama involving Mariah Booth Winfield Moffett  Booth et al and her second husband, Dr. George Washington Booth, who is also her first cousin, and his brother Dr. Thomas Harper Booth. Its from 1840. What is a Chancery suit in these circumstances?”

A Chancery suit is when someone was bringing a complaint against another person.  We call these civil suits today.  The complaint was heard by a judge only, not a jury. 


Ben asks another court question:
”What is the Court of Ordinary?” 

This is an old name for the probate court (in some states).  Here in Georgia the court of ordinary also handled deeds, marriages and lunacy hearings among other things.  Each state is a little different.  Ben is in South Carolina so I took a look and found that the court of ordinary and the court of equity (chancery) combined in 1868 to become the court of probate.1


This brings up a good point.  Every state has its own court system.  When delving into court records you need to have some understanding of this.  When I walk into the records vault in Columbia County, Georgia, I will see documents from the superior court, court of ordinary and inferior court.  Knowing what each of those courts did will help me locate the documents I need.  You also have to look at it in the context of the time period because courts changed names and changed jurisdictions.  A simple example is juvenile court.  In the state of Georgia the first juvenile court wasn’t established until 1908.2  Courts with the same name in different states might have completely different jurisdictions.

I can also go up the judicial chain to the state and the federal levels.  In the state of Mississippi, I frequently consult the High Court of Errors and Appeals when dealing with burned counties.  If the case went up to the appellate level you will find court records that were destroyed at the county level. 


1 Alice Eichholz, editor, Redbook: American State, County, and Town Resources, 3d ed. (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2004) 599.

2 “A Chronology of Corrections,” Crime and Delinquency (http://cad.sagepub.com : accessed 26 March 2013); In 1908, four counties created “Children’s Court.”  In 1915 the children’s courts were abolished and all counties with populations over 60,000 established juvenile courts. 


Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

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