Thursday, August 27, 2009

Back from Vacation: Legal Travels

Wherever my wife Jacqueline and I travel we make it a point to set aside time to see courthouses or other sites of legal interest in the region we are visiting. We just spent 12 days in Virginia, a state with a rich legal heritage.

Standing amid the skyscrapers in downtown Richmond is the John Marshall House, home of the Chief Justice from 1790 until his death in 1835. The house and its original furnishings are very well maintained. While I, of course, associate Marshall with Marbury v. Madison and "judicial review," the visit to the house brought out his domestic side: he owned slaves, he and his wife had 10 children, and his favorite drink was Port.

A few blocks away is the Virginia State Capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson. In one of its chambers, Marshall presided over the 1807 treason trial of Aaron Burr, former Vice-President of the United States. Marshall's interpretation of the treason provision of Article III, Section 3, of the Constitution is of enormous importance. Burr was acquitted.

Directly across the street from the Capitol is the Lewis F. Powell, Jr. United States Courthouse, home of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The courthouse has stood at its present location since 1858. In this building in 1866 a grand jury indicted Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, for treason. On another side of the Capitol is an imposing granite building which looks like a bank. It turned out to be the Supreme Court of Virginia. We learned that the building once housed the Federal Reserve, which explains its stolid appearance.

An hour's drive from Richmond is Colonial Williamsburg. This was the capital of Virginia until 1780 when the capital was moved to Richmond out of the fear that Williamsburg was too vulnerable to British attack. In one wing of the the beautifully restored Capitol building is the chamber where the colony's highest court sat. A short distance away is the 18th century courthouse. Actual trials reenacted in the courthouse make three points: slaves who were witnesses to an event could not testify against a white person; persons with an interest in the case, such as the plaintiff and the defendant, could not testify in their own behalf; and freedom of religion in the colony did not include the right to be a practicing Catholic.

Also in Williamsburg is the College of William and Mary. Founded in 1693, it is the second oldest college in the United States, and the law school at the College is said to be the oldest in the country. The first professor of law in the United States, George Wythe, was appointed at the College in 1779. Wythe was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Finally, after crossing Chesapeake Bay to Virginia's eastern shore, we stopped for lunch in Eastville (population 203) where we discovered an 18th century village green surrounded by the courthouse, debtor's prison, a row of houses still used as attorneys' offices, and the local inn. It turns out that Eastville has been the County Seat of Northampton County since 1680, and it claims to have the oldest continuous county court records in the United States. In August 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read from the courthouse steps.

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