Washington’s Legal System During the Territorial Years

January 28, 2008

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.

Centralia, Washington

January 5, 2008

George WashingtonCentralia’s founding father at the homestead. (With permission from the Washington State Historical Society)

Washington has a proud, if largely overlooked, heritage of resistance to racist practices that have afflicted other areas. One hundred thirty three years ago — on January 8, 1875 — George and Mary Jane Washington filed the plat that established to town that was later named Centralia.

Washington, the son of an African-American slave and a white mother, was born free in 1817 but racist laws and practices prevented him from pursing business interests in Missouri and Illinois. Undeterred he traveled by wagon train to Oregon City in Oregon Territory. He was happy enough with Oregon City until learning that territorial law prohibited blacks from settling in the territory. This was a very strange law, even in its day. I don’t believe that there was any other area in the United States where blacks were barred from settling or residing.

With characteristic resolve, the Washingtons traveled north in 1852 across the Columbia, roughly along the path of what is now Interstate 5 to the junction of the Skookumchuck River and the Chehalis River. There they cleared an area in the forest, built a home and started farming. The following year, 1853, Washington Territory was created without the racist proscription that prevented the Washingtons from settling there. A Donation Land Claim for 640 acres was filed. Years later the Northern Pacific line connecting Kalama on the Columbia River with the Puget Sound area was completed. Instead of lamenting the fact that the line passed through their land the Washingtons decided that this presented an opportunity and in 1875 they filed the plat for the town of “Centerville,” the center point between Kalama and Tacoma. (Everyone who thought that it was the midpoint between Seattle and Portland is wrong.)

Their sale of lots at $10 each was so successful that they had to amend the plat a number of times to expand the town. They even reserved an area for a community square, now known as George Washington Park. When Washington State was created in 1889 there were 1000 people in the town, a number that tripled a year later with a timber boom. Shortly thereafter the town’s name was changed to”Centralia” to avoid confusion with another “Centerville” in the State.

Washington (the person) became a civic leader, known for providing financial assistance to those who needed it. During the depression of the 1890’s he regularly drove a wagon, while in his mid-70’s, to Portland to buy supplies for those in the town who needed food. He was buried in 1905 in a cemetery he had donated to his town.