Vermont, as an independent state, ratified its constitution on 2 July 1777,
in Windsor. The beginning of its court system was outlined in Chapter II,
Section 4. It was simply stated that the "Courts of justice shall be established
in every county in this State." The judicial power of the State was vested in a
unified judicial system composed of a "Supreme Court, and the several courts of
common pleas..."1. This system evolved into three basic levels:
Supreme Court; courts of original and general jurisdiction; and minor courts of
limited or special jurisdiction.
The Supreme Court of Judicature was first called the Superior Court in the
General Assembly's enacting legislation on 23 October 17782. The
court held only one session in each half shire annually3. To clear up
the line of jurisdiction between the Superior Court and the county courts, "an
act defining and limiting the powers of the several courts within this State"
was passed in 1782. According to this act, the county courts were continued
(having been organized the year before), the Superior Court abolished, and the
Supreme Court of Judicature established4.
The Supreme Court is an appeals court only, for all practical purposes, in
the modern sense. By statute, it has exclusive jurisdiction of petitions that
cannot be tried by jury. It may issue writs of error5 to courts of
inferior jurisdictions6. The court can also order a new trial in any
court7. Historically, this court held jurisdiction over all criminal
actions, which includes adultery, polygamy, treason, counterfeiting, forgery,
perjury, incest, rapes, defaming of civil authority, and all other crimes for
which the fine went to the state treasury. Each session, the court moved about
the state from one shire town (in other states known as the county seat) to
The Court of Chancery was established by act on 3 March 1797; the Superior
[now Supreme] Court operated as the chancery before this. It met at the same
time and place, and with the same officials, as the Supreme Court. This court
was considered to have all the same powers as its counterpart in England, as
long as these did not conflict with the Vermont constitution. This court was
what is now termed a "court of equity." Cases brought before this court were
tried against justice that was deemed fair--the Supreme Court applied only the
law as written. In 1839 the chancery was separated from the Supreme Court, and
one judge was selected to sit at the same time as the county court in each
county. This court was in existence in 1857, but I have been unable to determine
when it ceased. Present-day Vermont does not have a chancery; however, archaic
laws for it are still on the books9.
The county court was first created in 1781. These courts evolved into the
modern district superior courts. This court has original and exclusive
jurisdiction of all original civil actions, except those that are admissible in
the justices' or municipal courts; petitions; and appellate jurisdiction of
civil or criminal causes appealable to this court. This court can also grant
retrials (at the county level). The superior judge is designated by the
legislature to be the chancellor, in effect, making the county court the de
facto chancery court. Divorce cases are handled here. Appeals from this court go
directly to the state supreme court10.
The probate court was created by the General Assembly on 24 March 1778. It
created probate districts and set the fees to be three times that established by
Connecticut law11. Each county was to have four probate districts, to
be drawn up by committee12. Probate courts were established as
counties were created. (The west side of the Green Mountains was named
Bennington, and the east side was named Unity--changed to Cumberland four days
later--on 17 March 1778.)
The probate court is the only court that does "not proceed according to
common law," but under the jurisdiction of statutes. An appeal of equity can go
to the county court; however, a point of law goes directly to the Supreme Court.
The probate court has "jurisdiction of the probate of wills, the settlement of
estates, the appointment of guardians, and of the powers, duties and rights of
guardians and wards." This includes all adoption cases and any land transfer by
The justices' court was the court run by the justice of the peace. It was
designed to handle the day-to-day issues of a small, but legal nature. These
courts had the power to try all criminal actions that would result is a fine or
forfeiture not exceeding 40s and corporal punishments not exceeding 10 stripes!
All civil actions went before the justices' court except those of defamation,
replevin, trespass, or where title of land was concerned14.
Special CourtsThe first municipal court was created at the
incorporation of the first city, Vergennes, in 1788. The mayor was selected as
its judge. It is unclear whether he ever acted officially in this capacity. The
next municipal court was established at Burlington in 1865, with the head of the
court being called a "recorder." Similar courts were later set up in Barre,
Bellows Falls, Bennington, Brattleboro, Brighton, Montpelier, Rutland, St.
Albans, Springfield, and Winooski, and in the counties of Addison, Caledonia,
These fourteen courts had the same power as the justices' courts; however,
their jurisdiction was greater. These courts covered their entire county, with a
couple of exceptions. If there were two courts in the county, each court had
jurisdiction in the entire county, except for the town where the other court was
located. If a county had more than one probate district, this court covered only
the towns within its probate district. This meant that there were no municipal
courts in the counties of Grand Isle, Lamoille, and Orange16.
A court of confiscation, one in each county, was authorized by the governor
and council on 26 March 1778. Seven men were appointed as a court to confiscate
and order the sale of estates belonging to the enemy. These men were actually
the governor and council themselves and were on the court within the county in
which they resided. The General Assembly ratified this arrangement on 12
This court operated throughout the Revolutionary War. Anyone deemed a "Tory,"
that is, loyal to the Crown of England, had his lands confiscated and sold to
the benefit of the state. The families usually moved to Boston, New York, or to
Canada for the protection of the British Army. There are 152 known Tory cases in
Vermont, whether their title was from Vermont or a claim from New York.
Loyalists petitioned the British Parliament for their losses. Between 1785 and
1789, over 5000 cases were reviewed18.
Circuit judges were instituted by an act that took effect in the fall of 1850
as a change to the judicial system. A Supreme Court of three judges was
authorized, the state was divided into four judicial circuits, and a circuit
judge was appointed in each. It was his duty to preside in the county courts,
the Supreme Court judges having no duties to perform in the county courts; each
circuit judge was a chancellor, the Supreme Court having no jurisdiction in
equity matters, except as a court of appeals. This act continued in force for
seven years and was repealed by an act that took effect in
Readers interested in this subject, or related ones, should review the works
cited in the article and this list of additional works: