Courts in Colonial Virginia
Duties of the Local Courts
Local Court Procedures and Personnel
Court Architecture & Democracy
Order in the Court Web Adventure
18th C. Legal Terms
Mock Trial of Abigail Briggs
Order in the Court Teacher Guide
Other Classroom Activities
The legal procedures for managing conflicts brought to it were used to build respect for the authority of the law and the local court. These procedures involved the following members of the court:
The pageantry of the justice system was first seen through the actions of the sheriff. Court began when the sheriff stood up and commanded all people in the courtroom to do the same. Then he called the meeting to order by loudly tamping his long staff on the floor three times from a raised platform on the side of the courtroom. Then he boomed Oyez, oyez, oyez, silence is commended in the court while His Majestys justices are sitting, upon pain of punishment to call the audience [bystanders] to quiet.
The sheriff of the county was elected and became the ranking police and financial officer. He served warrants, made arrests, and most notably, he collected taxes. He was also responsible through the county courts to carry out orders of corporal punishment against offenders. He was responsible for building and maintaining devices like stocks, pillories, whipping posts, and ducking stools that were part of colonial punishment. (Buffardi)
The clerk of the court then stood and read the complaint in a loud voice. He did this not to the public but To Your Honors so that all would see that the proceedings were official and under the leadership of the justices. After the plea of innocent or guilty was ascertained by the chief magistrate (or justice), witnesses were called. It was required by the law for a minimum of two witnesses to testify. The witnesses were sworn in by the clerk. He handed them a Bible and said the familiar words Do you ------ swear the evidence that you shall give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
As is true today, courts in colonial Williamsburg had both prosecuting and defense attorneys. These men were the most important members of the justice team in that they controlled the testimony of witnesses. In an era when there was really no police force, the testimony of witnesses was one of the only ways that the court could determine the truth of the course of events under judgment.
The attorneys coached their witnesses and prompted them with what to say in response to questions. The problem with relying so heavily on the testimony of witnesses was that there were often conflicts of interest. People knew each other and had a prejudice one way or the other toward that person. Sometimes they acted to benefit themselves rather than the person involved in the trial. Then too, laws prevented some persons from testifying in court against others. For example, African Americans were allowed to testify against other people of color, but not against someone who was white. The court sometimes figured out ways around these laws when necessary. For example, there was case where a free black tailor had made a suit of clothes for a white landowner for a prescribed fee. When the landowner refused to pay, the tailor wanted to sue. Since he couldnt testify, his account books served as a witness and he won his case due to a clever prosecuting attorney.
Court magistrates were not judges but rather upper class citizens appointed by the governor to serve without pay as community leaders and preside over the court proceedings. In Williamsburg they were most often landowners. It was felt that people in the community already looked up to these men and, therefore, their decisions would hold weight and build respect for the court. It was the clerk of the court who had legal training and it was to him that the magistrates looked if there was a question of law.
This idea of building respect for the court worked more in theory than practice, however. Since the magistrates were often uninformed about the law, they made errors that didnt hold up against legal precedent or practice. The public was there as a witness and as a result often subjected the magistrates to public ridicule and gossip.
As an example of this, Sabine Carter, a wealthy planter who served as magistrate in the Richmond County Court, threatened to resign because the lawyers were treated with more respect than the magistrates.
Even with the drawback of lack of legal training, the magistrates brought a certain amount of pageantry and dignity to the process. They dressed in fine clothes and wore powdered wigs. They were sophisticated men of the community and carried themselves with bearing and sense of service that came to represent the law itself.
Mock Trial in James County Court, Colonial Williamsburg,
Colonial Williamsburg Magazine, Summer 1991