Justice David M. Medina 0000-00-00 00:00:00
A Glimpse at Texas’ Early Judicial System3 Galveston, named after the Spanish Colonial Governor and General Bernardo de Galvez, was once known as the “Queen City of Texas” and the “Wall Street of the South.” The island was also the capital of the Republic of Texas and the center of trade for the state. Galveston’s prosperity changed forever on Sept. 8, 1900, when the Great Storm ravished the island city and took some 12,000 souls with it. The first three minute books of the district court offer a unique and previously unexplored look into Galveston’s history during the Republic. The books were recorded from May 1839 through October 1841 when Texas’ judicial system was in its infancy. Minute books, by their nature, seldom provide the riveting details and suspense of a Carlos Cisneros1 thriller. Instead, they provide general information about the cases and the judge’s decisions. Among the more curious entries in these minute books is the case of Derrick Coles v. Ford Clark . The facts are somewhat sparse. However, it is clear that this may be the first case submitted to arbitration, and it was ordered by Judge Ezekiel Cullen. The judge, a congressman and justice for the Supreme Court of the Republic of Texas, was the grandfather of prominent Houstonian Hugh Roy Cullen. He is best known today as the namesake of the Ezekiel Cullen Building located on the University of Houston campus. Another interesting case order involves Judge A.J. Shelby, who rode into town in December 1839 to hold court. That generally would not be problematic, but in this instance the judge did not have the statutory authority to do so. Nevertheless, he called a “special term” because the number of pending criminal cases caused the jails to be filled beyond capacity. Twenty-three citizens challenged the judge’s authority and refused to attend jury duty. After a hearing, Judge Shelby ruled that he did indeed have the authority to hold a special term, and he dispensed justice by imposing a $50 fine on each of the 23. The minute books also reveal that punishment could be extremely primitive and harsh, as in the case of The Republic v. Henry Howard . Howard was found guilty of larceny and sentenced to “thirty-nine lashes on his bare back.” Then there is the case involving the “Detinue of a Negro, a Horse, and a Mule.” The plaintiff claimed a superior right of possession of all three. The minutes indicate that the judge awarded the plaintiff “a Negro boy Gabriel,” but for unstated reasons declined to award him the rights to the horse or the mule. This sordid part of our history and how our judiciary dealt with antebellum laws regarding slaves and free blacks can be found in The Laws of Slavery in Texas , compiled by William S. Pugsley and Marilyn P. Duncan and edited by Randolph B. Campbell. The last case I found to be of great interest involves a suit over title to the entirety of the western end of Galveston Island. The title dispute developed because there were apparently competing grants to the land signed by Republic Presidents Sam Houston and Mirabeau B. Lamar. The minutes display a detailed map of the island, which was drawn by the judge. It appears that the commissioners appointed by the court called upon the wisdom of King Solomon because they split the island, giving every other land tract to each of the parties. The books describe Texas justice in its infancy during the beginning of Galveston’s great history. Some of those battles are still being fought today. By Justice David M. Medina Notes 1. Carlos Cisneros is a Texas attorney and an author of legal thriller novels.
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