A history of the Missouri Court of Appeals: the role of regional conflicts in shaping intermediate appellate court structure.

AuthorRasmussen, Jamie Pamela

    During the course of the history of the American legal system, appellate courts have steadily gained importance. While there was no right to an appeal in a criminal case in the early portion of American history, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, most jurisdictions provide for a right to an appeal, either by rule or statute. (1) Currently, many people simply assume that there is a universal right to some type of appeal. (2)

    Appellate courts correct procedural errors that occur in trial courts and help interpret and define the law, increasing the accuracy of judicial determinations and the legitimacy of the decisions made by the court system. (3) These courts ensure "that the law is interpreted and applied correctly and uniformly." (4) Furthermore, in the large majority of cases in which an appeal is filed the final determination is rendered by an intermediate appellate court. (5) Thus, the intermediate appellate court is an ever-more important part of the American justice system.

    Despite this critical role and the fact that state intermediate appellate courts have existed for over 150 years, the historiography of state intermediate appellate courts is still in its infancy. There has been some good work regarding the federal courts of appeals, (6) but with respect to the state intermediate appellate courts, the work has generally been in the nature of chronicles rather than histories. That is, the writers explain the laws that were passed and provide biographical information about some of the key players and first judges without providing analysis of cause and effect. (7) This has left the impression that there is a simple reason explaining the development and structure of intermediate appellate courts: They function to relieve supreme courts of crushing workloads. (8) This treatment fails to explain why intermediate appellate courts assumed the structure they ultimately did and so provides little help for those interested in improving the structure and function of state intermediate appellate courts.

    Among the most pressing problems facing American appellate courts over the past 150 years has been the issue of increasing numbers of cases. One response to this problem has been the creation of intermediate courts of appeal. (9) Missouri was one of the first states to experiment with a two-tier appellate system employing an intermediate appellate court. (10) For that reason, examining the development of Missouri's appellate system may be useful for students of all state intermediate appellate courts.

    This article contributes to the development of a more nuanced view of the social and political forces that shape the structure of state intermediate appellate courts by looking closely at the creation of the Missouri Court of Appeals. It first examines the public documents available regarding the creation of the Missouri Court of Appeals during the period from 1865 through 1910. This examination shows that while the caseload of the Supreme Court of Missouri was a factor in convincing politicians of the need for intermediate appellate courts of appeal, political and social factors--especially the conflict between different regional interests within the state--were the driving force in determining the ultimate structure and organization of the Missouri Court of Appeals. Next, the article examines how constitutional amendments in the mid-twentieth century pushed the Missouri Court of Appeals toward a more unified system. The article ends with a brief discussion of current features of the Missouri appellate system, which suggest that the regional forces that shaped the structure of the system initially still have power today.


    From the state's inception until 1865, Missouri, like all of the states and the federal government, had a single-tier appellate system. (11) Although there were numerous inferior courts, the primary trial courts were the circuit courts. (12) The Supreme Court, which was composed of three judges, had appellate jurisdiction to review the decisions of the circuit courts. (13)

    Missouri first experimented with an intermediate appellate court during the upheaval after the Civil War. Missouri was badly divided during the Civil War. (14) Guerrilla activity was rampant, and military courts exercised jurisdiction over civilians in portions of the state for almost the entire span of the war. (15) Additionally, an oath of loyalty was required for voting and office holding, among other things. (16) As the war neared its end, the newly formed Radical Republicans--a political party loyal to the Union that favored immediate emancipation throughout the state and strengthening the loyalty oaths--gained power. (17) At the November elections in 1864, the Radical Republicans won by large margins, and the voters approved a proposal authorizing a new constitutional convention. (18)

    The delegates to the Missouri Constitutional Convention of 1865 proposed a document that created sweeping changes in Missouri's government. With respect to the judicial branch, the delegates created one of the first intermediate appellate court systems in the nation. (19) As finally adopted, the Missouri Constitution of 1865 created five district courts outside of St. Louis County and provided that appeals from the circuit courts were to be brought to the district appellate courts. (20) The legislature was to determine when an appeal from the district courts to the Supreme Court would be allowed. (21)

    The intermediate appellate courts conceived by the delegates of the 1865 Convention were different from current conceptions of intermediate appellate courts. In some ways, the first appellate courts in Missouri reflected old-fashioned ideas regarding the role of an appeal in the judicial system. In the early days of the United States, appeals were considered an adjunct to the regular work of the trial courts. As scholars of the United States appellate system have observed, "purely appellate courts and the sharp separation of trial and appellate work were not characteristic of the American judiciary in the beginning." (22) During the early years of the American republic, appellate courts were composed of a number of trial judges who sat together periodically to review litigants' allegations of trial-court error. (23) Missouri's first intermediate appellate courts followed this model. The Missouri Constitution of 1865 created circuit courts as trial courts, with one judge serving in each circuit. The district courts each included several circuits and functioned as appellate courts. The judges of the district courts included all the judges of the circuit courts within that district. (24)

    To those accustomed to the modern system of appellate review, the striking feature of this system is that in each case the reviewing panel included the judge who tried the case. This in part explains why Missouri's first intermediate appellate courts did not last long. Later lawmakers criticized the system because it required the judge who tried the case to sit on the panel that decided whether an error had been made during the trial. (25) Because of the composition of the district courts, one newspaper commenter complained that the judges "each became in turn an attorney to sustain himself." (26) In 1870, the district courts were abolished by constitutional amendment. (27) After the district courts were abolished, the increased appellate workload was accommodated by the addition of two Supreme Court judges, bringing the total number of judges on the Supreme Court to five. (28)

    Nevertheless, because of the press of business at the state Supreme Court, many lawyers saw the need for additional reform, (29) and the topic of reforming Missouri's appellate court system again became a subject of discussion in 1875. Around this time, the practice of taking an appeal to cause delay for strategic advantage was also sufficiently common to cause concern to those interested in the administration of justice. (30) Additionally, by 1875, those who had fought for the South were beginning to regain their political rights, and many reformers thought a new constitution was needed. (31)

    Voters approved a new constitutional convention in 1874. (32) The convention convened the next January and lasted through most of the year. During the proceedings, delegates spent more than a week discussing the proposed judicial article for the new constitution. (33) An examination of the debates reveals some of the forces that determined the structure of the Missouri intermediate appellate courts.


    By 1875, Missouri had experienced many changes since it had achieved statehood. The first was a steep rise in population. In 1820, just as the territory was becoming a state, the population was 66,586. (34) By 1870, that number was over 1.7 million. (35) A second change involved industrialization. In the years immediately following the Civil War, railroads expanded rapidly across the state. (36) Railroads spurred economic development, but also brought an increase in litigation. (37) Some of that additional litigation arose from injuries to workers and passengers. (38) Railroad companies also borrowed money from the state and defaulted on those loans at alarming rates. (39) Finally, manufacturing interests increased dramatically. (40) These developments were especially noticeable in St. Louis, (41) and they all led to increased amounts of litigation. (42)

    Lawyers from St. Louis, "alarmed at the congested docket of the Supreme Court," played an important role in focusing the Convention's attention on the state's appellate court system. (43) Their concern was more immediate than that of other Convention delegates. More cases went to the Supreme Court from St. Louis than from any other part of the state. (44) For that...

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