Washington’s Legal System During the Territorial Years

last-grand-jury.jpgLast Territorial Grand Jury

From 1853 through 1989 Washington existed as a territory, independent of the Oregon Territory. Washington became a territory with under 4000 residents, three years after California became a state. (Maybe this explains why Washington in terms of the development of its laws has always seemed to lag behind California.) The relatively few Washington residents proved to be open to new ideas, passing the controversial Field Code which was a comprehensive system of statutes which among other things changed pleading practice so as to regulate access to the courts.

This system was favored by business interests which desired the establishment of a more efficient system than the prevailing common-law pleading practice. The industrialists of the age used the courts primarily as a debt collection vehicle and the Field Code promised to streamline that procedure. It took roughly 50 years for this system to achieve acceptance among the states. It would not be unfair to say that with the early adoption of the Field Code Washington showed an early bias toward business, a bias that has been reflected in the Washington’s judicial system through the present date. In 2002 a business sponsored survey showed that only one Washington Supreme Court justice had below a 50% voting record in favor of business interests.

With the mountainous number of statutes and regulations today it is funny to think that the enactment of a system of statutes was the controversial issue of the late nineteenth century. And with the business community running under the banner of deregulation today it is funny to think that it was business that cried for, and largely implemented, the system of regulation beginning in the 1840’s through the first part of the 20th century.

During its territorial years Washington had a court system consisting of judges appointed by the President. Originally they rode a circuit between Walla Walla, Vancouver, and Olympia, occasionally visiting Port Townsend, Seattle and Steilacoom. The territorial judges were castigated as hack absentee political appointees, as roughly half of them did not live within the territory. This sharp-edged resentment over the territorial judiciary provided some of the impetus for statehood as it was widely believed that with statehood the citizenry could choose their own judges and at once escape political patronage and achieve community representation of the bench.

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