Tapping the Scales of Justice - A Dose of Connecticut Legal History
Ephraim Kirby (1757-1804) is best remembered for compiling the first
volume of law reports published in the United States. However, Kirby
was much more - farmer, soldier, attorney, state legislator, candidate for
Governor, and Judge of Mississippi Territory, now known as Alabama. He
served in the Connecticut legislature, and was appointed by President Thomas
Jefferson to the position of supervisor of the National Revenue for the
State of Connecticut. Kirby also helped organize the Connecticut Land
Company and later was appointed to settle disputed land claims in
Mississippi Territory. He died of yellow fever at age 47 at Fort
Stoddert, before learning that President Jefferson had appointed him
Governor of the Mississippi Territory.
Judge Kirby served in the
Revolutionary War, volunteering just after the Battle of Lexington. He was
present at numerous battles from Bunker Hill to Germantown. After the war,
Kirby studied law at Yale and was admitted to the bar where he practiced in
Litchfield, Connecticut. Following American independence, the need for a
written record of court decisions developed in order to distinguish American
common law from English common law. When the Connecticut legislature passed
a law in 1785 requiring judges to prepare their decisions in writing, Kirby
had already begun his own compilation for private use. He was persuaded to
expand his task for publication, and so, Kirby's Reports were born.
Published in 1789, Kirby's Reports or Reports of Cases Adjudged in the Superior Court of the
State of Connecticut, from the year 1785, to May, 1788, with some
Determinations in the Supreme Court of Errors is a fascinating record of
the legal history of Connecticut's courts. Kirby wrote in his preface, "I
have avoided technical terms and phrases as much as possible, that it might
be intelligible to all classes of men." Many years later in 1933, Kirby's
Reports Volume II was published. Volume II, which contains 30
additional cases from 1785-1789, was discovered in Kirby's law library.
Ephraim Kirby has the distinction of being the first Superior Court
judge in what is now Alabama and is so honored in the archives of the state.
correspondence with President Jefferson can be read in the
Thomas Jefferson Papers from the
Manuscript Division at the
Library of Congress.
For other reading about the early Connecticut
Reports, see 70 Conn. Bar J. 407.
Doses of Connecticut Legal History