Clerk History

The Court of Common Pleas

The Court of Common Pleas is tracable to English antiquity. It is an offshoot of the ancient “great universal” court known as the Aula Regis (King’s Hall) otherwise called Curia Regis (the King’s Court) established by William the Conqueror.

The king’s great officers who resided in the palace and attended his person composed the court. These included the lord high constable, the lord high stewart, the lord chamberlain, and the lord high treasurer. To these certain justices learned in the law and the greater barons of parliament were added. A chief justiciar, who was the prime minister, presided. This court attended the person of the king wherever he might be. During the latter years of the 12th century the Common Pleas was created, and consisted of one chief justice and four puisne (associate) justices, its jurisdiction being confined altogether to civil matters (common pleas), having no cognizance of criminal matters (pleas of the crown).

One of the concessions of the Magna Carta was that the common pleas should no longer follow the person of the king but should be established in some certain place, that place being later agreed upon as Westminster Hall, where it was referred to as the Court of Common Pleas or Common Bench.

The Clerk of Common Pleas

The office of the Clerk of Courts of Common Pleas traces its beginnings to the medieval cleric. They maintained the records, were responsible for correspondence and had various powers to issue writs or other processes ordered by the court. The cleric was generally one of the few educated persons in the community.

Thus, established, this office originating before the time of Edward II, was brought to this continent, and adopted as an office of government during the colonial period. The American Revolution made no radical changes in the political heritage derived from England, the office was continued by the states because of the separation of the administrative and judicial functions of government.

The court of common pleas was the first to be organized under the ordinance of 1787. When the Governor and judges of the Northwest Territory in 1788 were confronted with the task of establishing civil courts in Washington County, Ohio, they looked to the established pattern of the court system of England and to its prototypes in the states of the new Union.

The law established: “A number of suitable persons, not exceeding five, nor less than three shall be appointed in each county, and commissioned by the Governor under the seal of the Territory to hold and keep a court of record, to be styled the County Court of Common Pleas.” The jurisdiction covered “all manner of pleas, actions, suits and causes of a civil nature, real, personal and mixed according to the constitution and laws of the territory.” Further, it provided that the judges might determine demands upon bond, bill, note, book account or assumpsit where the amount did not exceed five dollars.

Thus, from the very beginning the English system was broadened so there was no matter too trivial to be the objects of exclusion, nor any controversy so important or far reaching as to be “exempt from its power.” Though there were different courts for civil and criminal suits, one judge was the head of each of the courts in Washington County. The first known clerk of all these courts was Return Johnathan Meigs, later to become Governor of the State of Ohio.

In 1790, Hamilton County was created and Israel Ludlow was named clerk of courts. In 1798, Ross County was established and Edward Tiffin, Ohio’s first Governor, was appointed clerk. And, so were the same methods pursued in each of the other seven counties created prior to the Constitution of 1802.

Another prominent Ohioan to serve as a Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas was William Henry Harrison, who was a Clerk of Courts when he was elected ninth President of the United States.

An aside, is the interesting fact that the first five judges appointed by the legislature were Rufus Putnam, Benjamin Tupper, Archibald Crary, Isaac Pierce and Thomas Lord, not one of who had any legal training. They were each commissioned as a justice of the peace and therefore qualified to sit in the Court of General Quarter Sessions in the hearing of criminal causes, as they in fact did. The framers of the first constitution gave the legislative branch the predominance, and to render the executive and judicial branches subordinate and subservient. In carrying out that policy, the vast majority of the associate judges were at first selected from the ranks of the laymen. While it was planned to have the President Judge to preside at all general sessions of the court, the three associate judges could hold court at the stated times in his absence.

Creation of the Ohio Clerk of Courts Office

Article III of the Constitution of 1802 provided that the judicial power of the State should be vested in the Supreme Court, courts of Common Pleas, justices of the peace, and such other courts as the Legislature might establish. At this time it was vested with common law and criminal jurisdiction, because the Court of General Quarter Sessions was abolished. Judges were appointed by the legislature, and they in turn appointed their Clerks of Courts, usually for seven years. Under the Constitution of 1851 the office of clerk became an elective office with a term of three years. In the year 1936, the term of the Clerk was extended to four years.

In Wood County the Court of Common Pleas had four judges — a president judge, and three associates, all appointed by the Legislature. George Tod, father of the Governor David Tod, was president judge at the first court, and his associates were Samuel Vance, Horatio Conant, and Peter G. Oliver. David Hull was the first sheriff who rapped on the table to open the Common Pleas court. The first official act was to appoint Thomas R. McKnight, Clerk. Then C. J. McCurdy was appointed prosecutor for the State.

Filing Fees

Fees of the judge, clerk and sheriff were fixed by statue. The act of 1792 fixed the fees at rediculously small sums. There was a distinction made between “small causes” and “actions,” the latter fees were substantially larger. The fee law of 1795 generally reduced fees and did away with the class distinction. In 1798 the fees of the clerk and sheriff were materially increased.

Duties of the Common Pleas Court

The duties of the Common Pleas Court then (1802) might be some different than today. All probate work, including appointment of guardians, granting administration, recording wills, taking bonds, etc rested with the court. The court granted all licenses. Every business was required to have a paid license, such as taverns, stores, ferries, bridges, and warehouses.

Before Wood County was established by law as Wood County –

Jurisdiction Table for Wood County, Ohio

01 Mar 1805 to 17 Feb 1809Franklin and Champaign
17 Feb 1809 to 01 Apr 1815Delaware and Champaign
01 Apr 1815 to 01 Mar 1818Huron and Champaign
01 Mar 1818 to 01 Apr 1820Huron and Logan
01 Apr 1820 to presentWood