Rare Books Blog

May 5, 2009

Sir Edmund Saunders (d. 1683), Les Reports du Tres Erudite Edmund Saunders … des Divers Pleadings et Cases en le Court del Bank le Roy (2 vols.; London, 1686).

Edmund Saunders authored the best law reports of the late 17th century, known for their accuracy and clarity. They set out the pleadings and give concise summaries of the facts, issues, arguments, and judgment. The overriding focus of the reports is with the law of pleading, at which Saunders was the acknowledged master. Later on, Saunders’ Reports was translated and annotated and became a classic textbook on pleading, although Saunders’ own text had largely disappeared by its last edition in 1871.

“Within the first decade after the Restoration there are several new reports, extending for the most part over the remainder of the Stuart period. Chief among them is Saunders (1666-73), who is universally conceded to be the most accurate and valuable reporter of his age. His work is confined to the decisions of the King’s Bench between the eighteenth and twenty-fourth years of the reign of Charles II. Saunders participated as counsel in most of the cases, and he reports them with admirable clearness. In general his reports resemble Plowden’s; but they are much more condensed. He gives the pleadings and entries at length, and follows in regular order with a concise statement of the points at issue, the arguments of counsel, and a clear statement of the grounds of the judgment. The work was subsequently enriched by the learned annotations of Sergeant Williams.” – Van Vechten Veeder, “The English Reports, 1292-1865,” 15 Harvard Law Review 1, 15 (1901).

Edmund Saunders’ life is one of the few rags-to-riches stories of English law. Born into abject poverty, he taught himself to be a clerk and eventually entered the Middle Temple. His skill as a special pleader earned him a lucrative practice, but he lived simply. A contemporary, Roger North, described him as a heavy drinker and “a fetid mass that offended his neighbors at the bar in the sharpest degree.” He was kind, witty, honest, and idolized by law students: “I have seen him for hours … with an audience of students over against him, putting of cases and debating so as suited their capacities and encouraged their industry.”

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

Sir John Popham (1531?-1607), Reports and Cases Collected by the Learned, Sir John Popham, Knight, Late Lord Chief-Justice of England (London, 1656).

Popham’s Reports is but one of “the flying squadrons of thin reports” published in the mid- to late 17th century, and exemplifies their shortcomings. Popham himself can’t be blamed because he died a half-century before their publication, and probably never intended for them to be published. They were taken from a manuscript of unknown quality, and supplemented with a number of later cases. They were among many case reports translated (often badly) into English following the Commonwealth’s ban on the use of Law French in the courts. Many judges rejected them as having no authority, and banned their citation in court.

Sir John Popham was one of the most colorful of the law reporters, if the stories about him can be believed. As a child he was supposedly kidnapped and raised by gypsies, and worked his way through law studies at the Middle Temple as a petty thief. As a barrister, however, Popham rose through the ranks. By 1581 he was speaker of the House of Commons and Attorney General, and in 1592 he was made Chief Justice of King’s Bench. He was known as a strict but fair judge, and presided over the trials of the Earl of Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. He was also one of the promoters of the Jamestown colony in Virginia.

 

“Indigested crudities”

“A multitude of flying reports (whose Authors are as uncertain as the times when taken, and the causes and reasons of the Judgements as obscure, as by whom judged) have of late surreptitiously crept forth; whereby … we have been entertained with barren & unwarranted Products … which not only tends to the depraving of the first grounds & reason of our Students at the Common Law, & the young practitioners thereof, who by such false Lights are misled, … but also to the contempt of our Common Law itselfe, and of divers of our former grave and learned Justices and professors thereof, whose honored and revered names have in some of said Books been abused and invocated to patronize the indigested crudities of those plagiaries.” – Sir Harbottle Grimston, preface to The Reports of Sir George Croke (1657)

“See the inconveniences of these scambling reports, they will make us to appear to posterity for a parcel of blockheads.” – Holt C.J., Slater v. May, 2 Raymond 1072 (1704)

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

Case reports are a fundamental source for the study and practice of law in the Anglo-American common law system. “Landmarks in Law Reporting,” the Spring 2009 exhibition from the Lillian Goldman Law Library’s Rare Book Collection, illustrates the development of law reporting from the Middle Ages to modern times.

The exhibit begins with a manuscript collection of cases from the reign of Edward III, copied in about 1450. Also on display are first editions of the reports of Edmund Plowden (1571), considered the first modern-style reports) and Sir Edward Coke (1600), perhaps the most influential reports). Other “firsts” include the first American case reports (Ephraim Kirby’s 1789 reports of Connecticut cases) and the first U.S. Supreme Court reports (Dallas’ Reports, 1798).

Recurring themes in the exhibition include the gradual transformation from manuscript to print, the growth of legal publishing, the connections between law reporting and legal education, and the growing demands by lawyers for timely, well-organized reports.

The Rare Books Exhibition Gallery is located in the lower level of the Lillian Goldman Law Library (Level L2), directly in front of the Paskus-Danziger Rare Book Reading Room. For those unable to visit the exhibit in person, stay tuned to the following postings here on the Yale Law Library Rare Books Blog.

MIKE WIDENER
Rare Book Librarian

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Thanks to the following for their assistance and advice in the research and preparation of this exhibit:

  • Morris L. Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Law, Yale Law School
  • John H. Langbein, Sterling Professor of Law and Legal History, Yale Law School
  • Sabrina Sondhi, Special Collections Librarian, Arthur W. Diamond Law Library, Columbia University

Additional help in mounting the exhibit came from Brian Mendez and Fred Shapiro (Lillian Goldman Law Library), Joanne Kittredge (Yale Law School), and Emma Molina Widener (University of New Haven).

“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.

Image: Volume 2 of Alexander James Dallas, Reports of Cases Ruled and Adjudged in the Several Courts of the United States, and of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1798), containing the first reports of U.S. Supreme Court cases.

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.

May 4, 2009

Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), Les Reports de Edvvard Coke l’Attorney Generall le Roigne … (London, 1600?).

Sir Edward Coke’s Reports are perhaps the most influential reports in the history of English law, so much so that they are cited simply as “The Reports.” Their authority rests mainly on the high reputation of their author, and not on their accuracy or objectivity. Coke was not shy about inserting his own views, and set out not only to report the law but also to teach it. His vast learning spills out, rendering reports that are often disorderly.

The first volume of Coke’s Reports appeared in about 1600 (shown here), and met with such success that ten more volumes appeared in the next fifteen years. Legal historian T.F.T. Plucknett believes Coke may have been the first to report cases with the intent of publishing them soon after. When Coke was dismissed as a judge of King’s Bench in 1616, his political enemies (of which he had many) launched an investigation into alleged errors in the Reports, effectively halting his law reporting.

Coke on his Reports

“And now that I have taken upon myself to make a report of their arguments, I ought to do the same as fully, truly, and sincerely as possibly I can ; howbeit, seeing that almost every Judge had in the course of, his argument a particular method, and I must only hold myself to one, I shall give no just offense to any if I challenge that which of right is due to every Reporter, that is, to reduce the sum and effect of all to such a method as, upon consideration had of all the arguments, the Reporter himself thinketh to be fittest and clearest for the right understanding of the true reason and causes of the judgment and resolution of the case in question.” – Sir Edward Coke, Calvin’s Case, 8 Rep. 4a

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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