Rare Books Blog

May 5, 2009

William Johnson (1769-1848), letter to John Wells Esq., (Albany, NY, October 23, 1819).

William Johnson was Chief Justice Kent’s handpicked successor to George Caines as official reporter for the New York Supreme Court. During his tenure, Johnson produced 20 volumes of Johnson’s Reports, covering the period from 1806 to 1823. Johnson later added the post of Chancery Court reporter to his duties. Johnson’s Chancery Reports, covering the years 1814-1823, were the only specialized American equity reports of their time, greatly contributing to their influence in other states.

In the letter displayed here, Johnson mentions the case of Percival v. Hickey, which he reported in vol. 18 of his New York Supreme Court reports, and discusses the tribulations of a reporter’s work. The letter reads in full:

John Wells Esq.
Counsellor at Law
New York

Albany October 23rd 1819

My dear friend,
     The motion to bring on the case of Percival & Hickey was made today by Mr. Sedgwick, & accordingly I moved for the postponement of the arguments until the next term, which was granted. The plaintiff was here, & complained loudly of his Counsel Mr. E. [T.A. Emmet]. Mr. Strong forgot to send the points with the cases, which might have created a difficulty had the case been ordered on.
     The court have business, from the middle & northern Counties, sufficient to occupy them until Wednesday of next week. I hope to be able to leave here on that day, so as to have a short time in N.Y. before the Court of Errors.
     My Reports must fall greatly in arrears if so much of my time is passed in this place, of which every year, I become more & more tired.

     Yours truly,

     Wm. Johnson

MIKE WIDENER
Rare Book Librarian

“Landmarks of Law Reporting” is on display April through October 2009 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

May 5, 2009

Alexander James Dallas (1759-1817), Reports of Cases Ruled and Adjudged in the Several Courts of the United States, and of Pennsylvania, Held at the Seat of the Federal Government, vol. 2 (Philadelphia, 1798).

In 1790 (one year after Ephraim Kirby began publishing Connecticut reports), Alexander Dallas began publishing Pennsylvania reports. The same year, the U.S. Supreme Court began operating out of Philadelphia. Dallas included a few of those reports in the second volume of his reports, and so he is considered the first U.S. Supreme Court reporter. Dallas produced only four volumes of case reports and they were often derided for being incomplete, inaccurate, and tardy. The Supreme Court reports were at least five years old when they appeared. Shown here is the first page of Supreme Court reports, where the Court began to organize itself and adopt its first rules. It was not until the August Term, 1792, that the Court rendered its first substantive decision, in Georgia v. Brailsford (2 Dallas 402). After Dallas, the unofficial post of reporter to the Supreme Court was held in turn by William Cranch, Henry Wheaton, and Richard Peters.

MIKE WIDENER
Rare Book Librarian

“Landmarks of Law Reporting” is on display April through October 2009 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

May 5, 2009

Report of the Copy-Right Case of Wheaton v. Peters: Decided in the Supreme Court of the United States: with an Appendix, Containing the Acts of Congress Relating to Copy-Right (New York, 1834).

Henry Wheaton had been unofficial reporter of U.S. Supreme Court cases from 1816-1827. Although his Reports were considered comprehensive and accurate, they were also quite expensive, being swollen with Wheaton’s lengthy annotations. When Richard Peters took the post of court reporter, he took it upon himself to condense the reports of his three predecessors and to sell these condensed volumes for a tidy sum. Wheaton promptly sued. In this landmark copyright case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for Peters and held that “no reporter has or can have any copyright” in the Court’s opinions.

Although not named, Peters is the likely publisher of this report. The dedication to Chief Justice Marshall, “due to your unequalled ability and usefulness; to the greatness of your character; the purity of your motives; and the kindness of your judicial deportment,” has the ring of a grateful litigant.

This volume is part of the Walter Pforzheimer Collection of copyright law.

MIKE WIDENER
Rare Book Librarian

“Landmarks of Law Reporting” is on display April through October 2009 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

May 5, 2009

John B. West & Co., The Syllabi, vol. 1, no. 1 (Oct. 21, 1876; reprint ed.; St. Paul, Minn., 1991).

John B. West & Co., The Northwestern Reporter, vol. 1 (1st ed.; St. Paul, Minn., 1879).

After the Civil War, the number of cases being reported rose astronomically. However, these case reports were still very slow to reach print; delays of months or years were not uncommon. Select reports sometimes appeared in newspapers but, as they were aimed at the general public, these were not always accurate. In 1876, John B. West began publishing The Syllabi, a weekly newsletter aimed at practicing attorneys in his home state of Minnesota. Its goal was to “furnish the legal profession of the state, with prompt and reliable intelligence.” It lasted for six months before evolving into book format, and then being renamed The Northwestern Reporter.

The Northwestern Reporter was the first of the National Reporter System case reporter series published by West Publishing Company. By 1887, eight years later, West reporters would cover every state jurisdiction. In addition to being timely and accurate, West reporters were the first to feature editorial enhancements such as summaries of court opinions. Although not present in this first volume, later volumes also incorporated Key Numbers from the new West Digest system.

MIKE WIDENER

Rare Book Librarian

“Landmarks of Law Reporting” is on display April through October 2009 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

May 4, 2009

[Year Books, 20-45 Edward III.] Liber Assisarum (manuscript in Law French, ca. 1450).

The origin of our case reports lies in the late 13th century, with what are now called the “Year Books.” The Liber Assisarum, shown here, is a collection of Year Book cases in the court of King’s Bench in 1347-1372.

The Year Books are quite different from modern case reports. They say little or nothing about the facts, or who won. What interested the anonymous reporters was the debate between advocates and judges, a sort of tentative oral pleading that has been compared to lightning chess. The Year Books seem to have had some connection (still unclear) with legal education at the Inns of Court, but they were also used by bench & bar.

As more or less verbatim records of legal debates between named individuals, the Year Books are virtually the only historical sources that capture voices from the Middle Ages.

Maitland on the Year Books

“Today men are reporting at Edinburgh and Dublin, at Boston and San Francisco, at Quebec and Sydney and Cape Town, at Calcutta and Madras. Their pedigree is unbroken and indisputable. It goes back to some nameless lawyers at Westminster to whom a happy thought had come. What they desired was not a copy of the chilly record, cut and dried, with its concrete particulars concealing the point of law: the record overladen with the uninteresting names of litigants and oblivious of the interesting names of sages, of justices and serjeants. What they desired was the debate with the life-blood in it: the twists and turns of advocacy, the quip courteous and the countercheck quarrelsome.” – Sir Frederick Maitland, 17 Selden Soc. xv.

MIKE WIDENER
Rare Book Librarian

“Landmarks of Law Reporting” is on display April through October 2009 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

May 4, 2009

[Year Book, 27 Henry VIII.] De termino Pasche anno regni Regis Henrici Octaui. XXVII (London, 1556).

Printers began publishing Year Book cases in the 1480s. Two and a half centuries of Year Book reporting came to an end with the cases from 27 Henry VIII (1535), shown here. Lawyers, judges and students did not stop reporting cases. The transition from Year Book reports to our modern case reports was gradual, and coincided with a shift from oral to written pleadings.

MIKE WIDENER
Rare Book Librarian

“Landmarks of Law Reporting” is on display April through October 2009 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

May 4, 2009

Edmund Plowden (1518-1585), Les Commentaries, ou Reportes de Edmunde Plowden un Apprentice de le Comen Ley (London, 1571) [with] La Second Part de les Reports, ou Commentaries … (London, 1610).

Edmund Plowden’s Commentaries was the first of the “nominative reporters,” reports cited by the reporter’s name. His reports claim many other “firsts.” They were the first to include the names of the parties in the headings, providing a citation method that lawyers follow to this day. Plowden was the first reporter to prepare his reports for the press. His was the first collection of leading cases, “annotated by an editor at the head of the profession, which by including the pleadings … enabled them to be studied in the context of litigation” (Biographical Dictionary of the Common Law). Reprinted numerous times, they were required reading for law students. In terms of their accuracy, organization, and balance, they were unsurpassed for centuries.

Highly respected and successful as a lawyer, Plowden was kept from the bench by his loyalty to the Catholic faith.

The copy on display is the first edition of 1571. An early hand altered the publication date to 1599, the date of the fourth printing; perhaps it was a bookseller “refreshing” his stock.

Commentaries on Plowden’s Commentaries

“In almost all of the Cases which I have undertaken to report, before they came to be argued, I had Copies of the Records, and took Pains to study the Points of Law arising thereupon, so that oftentimes I was so much Master of them, that if I had been put to it, I was ready to have argued when the first Man began; and by this Method I was more prepared to understand and retain the Arguments and the Causes of the Judgments. And besides this, after I had drawn out my Report at large, and before I had entered it into my Book, I shewed such Cases and Arguments, as seemed to me to be the most difficult, and to require the greatest Memory, to some of the Judges or Sergeants who argued in them, in order to have their Opinion of the Sincerity and Truth of the Report.” – Edmund Plowden, preface to his Commentaries

“What Coke was to hail as those ‘exquisite and elaborate’ Commentaries were thus quite unlike anything that had previously been produced. It was not just that they were the first reports which had been carefully prepared for the press and published in the reporter’s lifetime, … nor even that they included only cases that had been brought to final judgment… For the Commentaries was also a book of leading cases, annotated by an editor at the head of the profession, which by including the pleadings (previously collected only in books of entries) enabled them to be studied in the context of litigation.” – Biographical Dictionary of the Common Law

MIKE WIDENER

Rare Book Librarian

“Landmarks of Law Reporting” is on display April through October 2009 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

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