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Chancery Courts as a Window on Social History

By Shannan Kain

“Courts of Chancery – Cases of Equity”

The Court of Chancery and Equity that we find in the records for Walla Walla County of the 1860s was developed in England and was originally presided over by the Lord Chancellor. The Lord Chancellor was given the right to determine cases for the king based on “fairness” when prescribed laws were non-extant. As time passed the recurring concept of equity became seemingly consistant and introduced modern tools of justice like trusts and injunctions.

Unlike current practices in equity cases where one can nearly predetermine what a case outcome will be, the powers given to the chancellors and then eventually to justices were not bound by legal precedents, allowing a free hand in determining the final decision. Equity, as a pure concept, did not truly develop until much later. Equity as it applies to frontier justice of Walla Walla County of the 1860s is a name given to situations where the existing law was too harsh or not applicable to the case at hand. When statutory law (written law) and common law (developed through decisions of courts) could not provide for a fair decision or a satisfactory remedy, equitous decisions were made by judges.

In Walla Walla County in the 1860s equity cases usually offered a monetary remedy. Additionally, equity cases offered injunctions or decrees ordering someone to act on or to desist from performing a particular action. Often this judgement was more valable then jailing an offender or collecting monetary damages. As an example, a neighbor stacks his cord wood delivery where you were going to stack yours. Putting him in jail or receiving a sum of money is not relevant or useful. The best decision is to get it ordered that he remove the wood to his own land. These decisions were made by the courts of chancery. Just as modern day law suits are abundant, in the 1860s equity and chancery cases were prevelant.

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Types of chancery and equity cases include but are not limited to squabbles over inherited property, drafting of wills, land and land rights, trusts, unpaid debts, and marriage settlements. When perusing the equity cases I discovered many types of documents.

The pleading contained the Complaint of the plaintiff, and the Answer of the defendant.

In situations where cases remained undecided for several years, the original plaintiffs might have been succeeded by their survivors, and as a result, the title of the case may change. As an example Sullivan vs. Wexler became Sullivan vs. Johnson when Wexler died. In cases with several defendants each defendant was heard separately so although the case was the same there were several extant files under different names.

Witnesses were questioned using a document called an interrogatory. These witnesses could be questioned on behalf of the defendant or the plantiff. Witnesses answered questions about the case, under oath, sometimes in the court itself and other times before a justice of the peace, in their office before the trial. Their answers were recorded and signed.

Some of the documents I found were exhibits. These exhibits
included, title deeds, marriage settlements, wills, business ledgers, accounts, and family and estate papers, used in court to support an arguments made by either party. Additionally, I uncovered subpoenas, directives to the sheriff, and in most files a decree, the written statement of the final decision of the justice. All documents were of course handwritten and I have attempted to transcribe a few for you here.