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Tapping the Scales of Justice - A Dose of Connecticut Legal History


America's First Court Reporter
Ephraim Kirby

BooksEphraim Kirby is best remembered for compiling the first volume of law reports in America. Kirby was much more during his 47 years - farmer, soldier, attorney, state legislator, candidate for Governor, and Judge of the Mississippi Territory. He died at Fort Stoddert, Mississippi Territory, 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."

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. His life is chronicled at their web site, http://www.archives.state.al.us/al_sldrs/k_list.html. In addition, his correspondence with President Jefferson can be read in the Thomas Jefferson Papers from the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/mtjhtml/mtjhome.html. For other reading about the early Connecticut Reports, see 70 Conn. Bar J. 407.

Doses of Connecticut Legal History