A Brief History of Mississippi's Chancery Court

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Posted January 23, 2013

Prior to statehood, the Mississippi Territory already had a system of multi-tiered courts adapted from the Northwest Territory, but no separate chancery court. See Michael H. Hoffheimer, Mississippi Courts: 1790-1868, 65 Miss. L.J. 99, 116 (1995) (hereafter Miss. Courts). During Mississippi’s first constitutional convention of 1817, former territorial judge George Poindexter, who led the drafting, persuaded the committee to authorize the state legislature to create a chancery court “with exclusive original equity jurisdiction.” James W. Shelson, Mississippi Chancery Practice § 14 (West 2011 ed.) (hereafter Miss. Chancery Practice); see Miss. Courts, at n.72. On November 23, 1821, during Poindexter’s subsequent service as governor, the legislature established a “superior court of chancery” made up of one chancellor (Joshua G. Clarke) who would sit in two districts: in Adams County for the western district and Marion County for the eastern district, and by 1827, Mississippi had four chancery districts. Miss. Courts, at 125 & n.106; Miss. Chancery Practice, at § 14.

John A. Quitman succeeded Chancellor Clarke in 1828; Quitman was serving as governor in 1832 during the second constitutional convention. Miss. Chancery Practice, at § 16. The 1832 constitution gave the chancery court the power to grant divorces (without the previously required two-thirds approval of the legislature), and provided for the popular election of judges. Miss. Courts, at 139-140 & n.192. The provision for only one chancellor remained. Id. at 149. However, the new constitution endowed circuit courts with concurrent jurisdiction over equity matters of $500 or less, as well as divorces and mortgages. Id. at 146 This was meant to ease the burden on litigants who were hard pressed to attend the sessions of the chancery court, which were held in limited venues. Miss. Chancery Practice, at § 16. Even so, the chancellor likely had a tremendous case load; the legislature created three inferior chancery courts — for a northern, southern and middle district — between 1838 and 1852. Miss. Courts, at 150-151; Miss. Chancery Practice, at § 16.

[Mississippi] chancery practitioners relied on ‘the general law of equity’ established in England and other states.”

Until the appearance of Mississippi-specific chancery manuals in the 1900s, chancery practitioners relied on “the general law of equity” established in England and other states; in the early years in particular, Mississippi’s chancellors relied heavily on the great Chancellor James Kent of New York, even establishing a rule that chancery practice should conform to the practice of New York unless inconsistent with an established Mississippi rule. Miss. Chancery Practice, at § 15; Michael H. Hoffheimer, et al., Pre-1900 Mississippi Legal Authority, 73 Miss. L.J. 195, 204 & n.26 (2003).

Due to continued growth of the chancery court case load and limited modes of transportation, the constitution was amended in 1856 to provide a chancery court in each county administered by circuit judges; in 1857, the legislature abolished the separate chancery courts altogether and gave full equity jurisdiction to the circuit courts. Miss. Chancery Practice, at § 16; Miss. Courts, at 148, 153. However, the circuit courts would typically try jury cases first, leaving equity cases unresolved when the court adjourned at the end of a term. Miss. Chancery Practice, at § 17. This unsatisfactory result led to the separate chancery courts being reestablished in the 1868 constitution, with chancery court to be held in every county, where they have remained to this day. Id.

The primary drafter of the article on the judiciary was Mississippi’s federal judge, Robert A. Hill, who participated at the insistence of political associates controlling the convention. Id. Judge Hill did away with longstanding “primitive tribunals,” such as local probate courts (which had traditionally been administered by those “unlearned in the law”), making the jurisdiction of Mississippi’s chancery courts “as broad as, if not broader than” that of any chancery court in England. Id. at § 18; see Miss. Courts, at 170. The structure of the court system has remained basically intact since that time. Miss. Courts, at 169-170.

Besides the restoration of judicial elections — which had been eliminated in 1868 in favor of gubernatorial appointment — the most significant change in the 1890 Constitution was section 147, providing that civil judgments should not be reversed solely for jurisdictional error as to which court — chancery or circuit — should have heard the case. Miss. Chancery Practice, at § 19. The difficulty in determining the nature of a case as legal or equitable has led some to argue for unification of our court system. See, e.g., Joseph M. Gianola, Jr., Comment: Changing Jurisdiction in Chancery Court, 25 Miss. C. L. Rev. 109, 109 (2005) (arguing “the time may be now for Mississippi to join forty-seven other states in allowing all equity matters to be heard in circuit court”). Our neighbors in Arkansas are the most recent to make that change. See Larry Brady & J.D. Gingerich, A Practitioner’s Guide to Arkansas’s New Judicial Article, 24 U. Ark. Little Rock L. Rev. 715, 719 (2002).

However, by all accounts, along with our sister states of Tennessee and Delaware, Mississippi’s rich tradition of chancery court practice is likely to endure well into the 21st century.