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Colonial Period

Local Courts And Magistrates

While the colonies were different and changes occurred independently through the next century, some basic traits in the court system were widely shared. The major figure in the colonial court system was the magistrate (a local official with limited power), often called justice of the peace or, simply, judge. This person mostly dealt with petty (minor) crimes in his local area. The local trial courts in the colonies were commonly called county courts. Judges overseeing these courts were not professionals but usually religious or political leaders. Some colonies also had higher courts to hear appeals from the county courts. As communities grew larger they developed special courts to hear certain kinds of cases. Occasionally appeals from these various courts would be taken back to England's courts.

Rarely did colonial courts use juries or lawyers. In early colonial times it was difficult to assemble a jury in many areas since the settlements were so small and far apart. Juries mostly served only when the death penalty was involved. For petty crimes, a magistrate heard the case and decided the verdict. Such local courts heard thousands of cases.

Magistrates were fully in charge of the colonial court proceedings. These early colonial justices firmly believed their main role was to enforce God's plan. Their aim was to force a confession from the accused and make them repent (apologize for) their sins. The goal was not necessarily punishment, but confession and bringing order back to the society. If a defendant requested a jury, he or she was viewed as disrespectful of the judge's authority. Many defendants favored not having a jury as they preferred to rely on the mercy of a judge who was often more interested in seeing that the accused give in to his authority than to provide justice.

As the seventeenth century progressed and populations in the thirteen colonies grew, the legal system became more similar to the English court system. Use of juries, dating back to medieval England, increased in the colonies as did the number of lawyers. By the eighteenth century the jury trial was common. By 1730 the defendants were allowed to have defense lawyers.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawColonial Period - European Settlement Of North America, Factors Influencing Early Colonial Law, Differences From The English Criminal Justice System