Monday, January 4, 2016

Research Tip: Court of Common Pleas in Indiana

Today each Indiana county has multiple courts - typically one circuit court plus at least one superior court (and depending on how big the county's population/caseload is, they may have several superior courts). But back in the 1800s, most counties in Indiana only had the one circuit court to handle all their civil, criminal,and probate cases.

So in 1852 the Indiana legislature reached back into English law and passed a law creating a Court of Common Pleas in each county, which would take effect in January 1853. These courts - which would exist simultaneously with each county's circuit court - would be in session four times a year, with the length of each session based on the county's population.

In an effort to ease the burden on the circuit courts, these courts of common pleas would now be the only court to hear probate cases, as well as criminal cases that were not felonies (felonies were restricted to the circuit courts). For most other kinds of civil cases, the courts of common pleas and circuit courts were given concurrent jurisdiction, meaning those cases could be heard in either court, with the clerk responsible for trying to keep the two caseloads roughly equal.

The creation of another court meant that the county clerk had to keep a separate set of order books, docket books, fee books and loose papers for the Court of Common Pleas, in addition to the set of records that had already been established for the Circuit Court.

This court experiment only lasted 20 years. In March 1873, the Indiana legislature repealed its law, thus abolishing the Court of Common Pleas. It allowed any session that was currently underway to be completed, then the clerk was to transfer all the remaining cases to the Circuit Court. But the Court of Common Pleas set of records remained separate. So if you are researching court records from that period, you'll want to check the records from BOTH courts.

In the 1980s, many Indiana counties had their early order books from both the circuit court and court of common pleas microfilmed. This microfilm is available at the Indiana State Library and can also be ordered through FamilySearch.

NOTE: Although 1853 is recognized as the beginning of the era of the Court of Common Pleas in Indiana, there were a few counties where the legislature had already recognized the demand and created their own Court of Common Pleas earlier than that. They were:
  • Jefferson County (Madison) - established February 1851
  • Marion County (Indianapolis) - established January 1849
  • Tippecanoe County (Lafayette) - established January 1848 
[This article originally appeared in Indiana News, IGS's FREE monthly email newsletter. Click here to subscribe and have articles like this delivered straight to your inbox!]

No comments:

Post a Comment