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Criminal Courts - Early American Courts

colonial government legislative system

During the earliest period of European settlement in North America, the colonial legislative and judicial bodies were not separate. Legislative bodies often judged major cases; as a result, the same assembly that made laws also heard cases challenging those laws. No separation of power existed between these two governmental functions.

Local magistrates (officers of the court) heard lesser or minor cases. Magistrates were usually prominent people from within the community, though not legally trained judges. This judicial arrangement was quite different from England and Europe where criminal courts were well established.

Throughout the eighteenth century the colonial legal system, including the courts, developed more completely though were still not politically independent from other parts of government. Sometimes the colonial legislatures would overrule court decisions. Appeals of colonial court decisions also often went back to England for review. Improvement of the court system was not a major issue with colonists.

The Articles of Confederation, written in 1781 to form a temporary government until the U.S. Constitution could be adopted, did not even mention a national court system. Similarly, most of the thirteen newly forming state governments focused more on the duties of the executive and legislative branches of government. State courts seemed less important, and some even argued against creating independent courts.


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