The Establishment & Early History of the District Court of South Carolina, 0715 SCBJ, SC Lawyer, July 2015, #32

Author:Hon. Richard Mark Gergel, J.

The Establishment and Early History of the District Court of South Carolina [1]

No. Vol. 27 Issue 1 Pg. 32

South Carolina BAR Journal

July, 2015

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0 Hon. Richard Mark Gergel, J.

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0Upon the adoption of the Judiciary Act of 1789,[2] which established a national judicial system of 13 judicial districts, President Washington faced the daunting task of getting a court system up and running across the vast landscape of the newly established United States of America. His first acts involved the appointment of federal judges, who he pledged to be "the fittest characters to expound the law ... and dispense justice."3 Washington's first choice for the South Carolina District judgeship was Thomas Pinckney an Oxford educated Revolutionary War brigadier general who had served as governor of South Carolina. Pinckney declined the appointment, stating that a judgeship was incompatible with his interests. Pinckney would later serve in Congress and as United States Ambassador to Great Britain.4

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0Pinckney recommended to President Washington the name of William Drayton to serve as South Carolina's first federal district judge. This nomination was somewhat controversial because Drayton had served as a British colonial office holder and had something of a reputation as a fence sitter during the early Revolutionary period. Drayton's qualifications, however, were unquestionable. He was trained at the Middle Temple in London and was serving as an associate justice of the S.C. Supreme Court and judge of the S.C. Admiralty Court.5

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0Drayton brought another asset to his service as South Carolina's first district judge: he already had chambers and a courtroom at the Exchange Building as a result of his service as a state judge. This was no small thing because public space for the courts in Charleston was fairly limited at the time. Judge Drayton simply changed hats from the state to the federal judiciary and began holding the district court's proceedings in the Exchange Building.

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0Judge Drayton was appointed district judge by President Washington on November 18, 1789, and conducted the opening ceremony for the court on December 14,1789.6 In this first court proceeding, Drayton presented his signed commission from President Washington as evidence of his appointment. This commission is remarkably similar to the commissions all district judges receive to this day. Drayton then announced the appointment of Thomas Hall as the first clerk of court, Julius Pringle as the first U.S. Attorney and Isaac Huger as the first U.S. Marshal.7 Five days later, on December 19, 1789, the court held another session and formally adopted rules of the court and rules for admission to practice, set terms of court and created grand jury and petit jury lists.8 In sum, within a month of his appointment, Judge Drayton had the District Court for the District of South Carolina up and running. This rapid establishment of court rules of practice was necessary because Judge Drayton tried his first case, an admiralty action, George Abbot Hall, Collector of the Port of Charleston v. Eight Barrels of Sugar, etc. on board the Sally Sloop and Letty, on January 7,1790.9

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0The federal district courts were courts of limited jurisdiction, and the more serious trials were conducted by the federal circuit court. There were, however, no appointed federal circuit judges. Instead, circuit-riding U.S. Supreme Court justices would serve as circuit judges, sometimes sitting with district judges on multi-judge panels. South Carolina-based U.S. Supreme Court justices John Rutledge and later William Johnson would sit in trials in South Carolina as circuit judges. The clerk of court and U.S. Attorney for the district court served in the same position of the U.S. Circuit Court. The circuit court initially had no permanent home in South Carolina and would meet in available public space. At times, this included using the Long Room over McCrady's Tavern.10

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0Judge Drayton's service as South Carolina's first district judge would be brief, since he died in May 1790, just a little over six months after his appointment. He was replaced by Thomas Bee, who had served as Speaker of the S.C. House, Lieutenant Governor and a member of the Continental Congress. Unlike Judge Drayton, Judge Bee had a well-earned reputation as a passionate patriot during the Revolutionary War. He was dubbed by one British official as a "furious Liberty boy," and his loyalty to the new nation was unquestioned. Judge Bee did not have the best social skills, however, and was described as a person of "crude, restive temper" who was "very desirous of order in the house but most apt to transgress it himself." Judge Bee collected and published his major opinions, which were among the earliest published opinions in the new nation. Judge Bee served as South Carolina's second district judge from June 1790 until 1811.[11]

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0The Old State House, which sat at the comer of Meeting and Broad, had burned in 1788 and underwent repairs over the next several years. In December of 1792, the renovation was completed, and Judge Bee moved his court from the Exchange Building to the newly designated Charleston County Courthouse. Judge Bee's courtroom was on the second floor literally on the comer of Meeting and Broad.12 The renovation of the Charleston County Courthouse after damage from Hurricane Hugo recreated the courtroom as it existed when Judge Bee presided. The U.S. Circuit Court also conducted its proceedings in the County Courthouse in that same courtroom.

\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0\xA0During the federal district and circuit courts' use of the courtroom in the Charleston County Courthouse, which was from 1792 until...

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