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.
“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)
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.