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COURT OF GENERAL SESSIONS
Like most of Delaware's courts, the Court of General Sessions was derived from an early English court, the Court of Quarter Sessions, transplanted and adapted to suit the colony. Through the years it has been known by various names: the Court of Sessions under the Duke of York, Quarter Sessions under William Penn; General Quarter Sessions of the Peace and Goal Deliver in the colonial period. The 1792 and 1831 Constitutions name a General Sessions of the Peace and Jail Delivery, and the 1897 Constitution calls for a Court of General Sessions.1 Throughout its history, the court was primarily responsible for trying non-capital criminal cases, although at times it also had jurisdiction in non-criminal areas. The court was abolished in 1951 and its responsibilities given to the newly reorganized Superior Court.2
The composition of the court varied over the years. During the colonial period a "competent number of justices" commissioned by the Governor held court. After the 1792 Constitution, the judges of the Court of Common Pleas were also the justices of the Court of General Quarter Sessions.3 Under the 1831 and 1897 Constitutions, the court was composed of all State judges except the chancellor.4 The 1897 Constitution specified that no more than three judges could sit together; one judge could be a quorum except when the court tried cases involving election irregularities or contested applications for liquor licenses. In these cases two judges were needed to form a quorum. The 1897 Constitution further specified that the Governor appoint the judges, for twelve year terms, with consent of the Senate.5
Justices were authorized to take, enter, and satisfy recognizances and issue subpoenas, warrants, summonses, and other processes.6 Writs issued in one county could be directed to officers of the other two counties.
Other court officials included the Clerk of the Peace who served as the clerk of the court and as such was responsible for keeping the dockets and all other court records, including jury records.7 After 1911 a probation officer attended all sessions of the court. At the direction of the judges, he would investigate the character, history, and reputation of any person under indictment so that the court would have the necessary information to determine if the defendant should be placed on probation. The probation officer also investigated and reported to the court the status of those placed on probation.8
The Court of General Sessions had jurisdiction over all crimes and misdemeanors that were not triable in the Court of Oyer and Terminer or before Justices of the Peace. Cases triable in Oyer and Terminer included crimes punishable by death and cases involving accomplices or accessories to such crimes.9 General Sessions had the power to issue indictments and arrest a suspect involved in a capital crime, but the case itself was tried in Oyer and Terminer.
The Court of General Sessions also exercised appellate jurisdiction. Criminal matters could be appealed from the Justices of the Peace to General Sessions; appeals from the New Castle County Family Court were heard from 1945 to 1951.10 Convictions by aldermen, mayors, and specified offenses before the Wilmington Municipal Court could also be appealed to General Sessions.11 Additional appeals were heard from various types of cases, for example, cases relating to aircraft violations;12 driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol;13 suspension of vehicle certificate of registration;14 Secretary of State's refusal to issue a license or permit for tractors;15 conviction for violation of the milk bottle law;16 and the Motor Vehicle Department's refusal to issue a license.17
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The Court of General Sessions was given special jurisdiction in many other areas as well. One of its earliest responsibilities involved the issuance of tavern liquor licenses. A 1739-40 law required that owners of public houses petition the court for a recommendation to be sent to the Governor requesting a license be issued. Thus it makes sense that cases involving public houses operating without a license were tried in the Court of Quarter Sessions. During the colonial period, justices were required to set rates and prices on liquors sold in taverns and a copy of the prices had to be posted in the most public rooms of the tavern.18 An 1809 law required that no person could be recommended for a license unless they had paid a fee to the Clerk of the Court. The clerk was required to turn the money and a list of recommended persons over to the Secretary of State.19
In local option elections, the return of the votes was sent to the Court of General Sessions so that, if retail sale of liquor was prohibited in a certain area by such elections, the court would not recommend licenses. If the sale of liquor was prohibited, the court would license "Keepers of Temperance Houses." On the recommendation of twelve citizens, the court could also license storekeepers, physicians, or apothecaries to sell alcohol for medicinal and sacramental purposes.20
Beginning in 1873, a person desiring a tavern license had to file an application with the Clerk of the Peace; advertise his intention to make application in local newspapers; and file a certificate containing the signatures of twelve respectable citizens who affirmed that the applicant was of good character, that he owned a suitable house, and that a tavern was needed. The court then approved or disapproved the license.21 After prohibition ended in 1933, a Liquor Control Commission was established and given the responsibility for issuing liquor licenses. If the Commission refused to grant a license, the case could be appealed to the Court of General Sessions.22
Other licenses were also issued by the Court, such as a detective license,23 or a license to carry a concealed weapon, to operate a distillery.
Another early responsibility involved approving the building of new roads. Under a 1751-52 law, whenever citizens wanted a road built, they made application to the court. The court then appointed five freeholders (commissioners) to view and examine the area to determine if a road was necessary. If the five commissioners determined the road was needed, they laid out the road and made a return to the court describing how and where the road should be built. Whenever the road went through improved land, damages were assessed in favor of the owners.24 After 1820 no new road could be opened until a return had been approved by the Levy Court as well as by the Court of General Sessions.25
The court also had responsibilities for seeing that the roads were kept in good condition and could prosecute in cases of failure to do so. The justices were required to appoint an overseer of the roads in each hundred so that the roads would be maintained.26
In cases when an existing road was determined to be "useless and inconvenient," the court used a similar method to decide if the road should be vacated.27 After 1903 ten or more people could petition the court that it was in the best interests of the public to end private ownership of a turnpike road and to establish the same as a public road. The court would again appoint a "Jury of View," to view, condemn, and assess damages to be paid to the turnpike company. The return was required to have a map or draft attached.28
The court was also given jurisdiction relating to mill dams and ditches, and the same procedures were followed. Although ditches were primarily a responsibility of the Superior Court, the court of General Sessions was given jurisdiction in 1935 to lay out ditches in Sussex County. After a petition was filed, the court would appointed five freeholders to view the land and make a return.29
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The Court of General Sessions had some responsibilities relating to the poor, to blacks, and to the insane. The Court was required to order relatives to pay the expenses for care of the poor in the almshouse, and the court decided controversies between the trustees of the poor of different counties.30 Poor persons unable to pay fines and costs could be `sold' or apprenticed as servants to pay their debts to the court31 and justices were permitted to make orders against former slave owners to reimburse the Trustees of the Poor for their maintenance of manumitted slaves.32
Beginning in 1789, slaves were tried for capital crimes in the Court of General Sessions instead of the Court for the Trial of Negroes (see RG 2811, 3811, and 4811), free blacks convicted of a felony could not be sold without a license obtained from the Court of General Sessions or the Supreme Court.
In 1857, the Court of General Sessions was permitted to order insane persons charged and acquitted of crimes to be et at large if no danger existed to the public safety. The Court could also place them in the county almshouse or an asylum.
Before the Juvenile Courts and Family Courts were established, the Court of General Sessions had some responsibilities relating to families and juveniles. In cases where parents neglected to provide for their children, or children refused to support their parents, the Court could issue orders for support to be provided. The Court also had jurisdiction over non-support and desertion cases involving husbands, wives, and children.33 Any man charged with being the father of an illegitimate child could apply for redress to the Court of General Sessions.34
The legislature first addressed the juvenile delinquent problem in 1883 when the Court of General Sessions was permitted to commit juveniles to the House of Refuge in Philadelphia.35 After Ferris Reform School (RG 1610) was established, boys convicted of criminal offenses were sent to that private institution.36 Delinquent girls were sent to the Delaware Industrial School for Girls (RG 1611). Both boys and girls could be transferred by the court to the New Castle County Workhouse if they were insubordinate while in Ferris or the Industrial School.37
When a Juvenile Court for New Castle County was established in 1923, the clerk of the court was required to report annually to the Court of General Sessions on the number and disposition of delinquent, dependent, or neglected children brought before the court. Delinquents brought before the Court of General Sessions in Kent and Sussex counties could be remanded for trial to the New Castle County Juvenile Court until 1933 when a Juvenile Court for the lower counties was established.38
Among their other duties, the judges of the three courts appointed fence viewers,39 and constables of each hundred,40 town woodcorders,41 and probation officers.42 The Sussex County Court was required to appoint trustees to take charge of and secure rents of lands and marsh at Cape Henlopen.43
The Court of General Sessions was abolished in 1951 as part of the reorganization of the State's judicial system. Its responsibilities and functions were transferred to the Superior Court44 (RG 1217, 2810, 3810, and 4810).
NB. For purposes of clarity in this agency history we have consistently used the name Court of General Sessions and not referred to it by any of its other variant names, though all forms of the name will be found in the records themselves.
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1 Staughton George, Benjamin M. Nead, and Thomas McCamant, eds., Charter to William Penn and Laws of the Province of Pennsylvania . . . Proceeded by Duke of York;s Law . . . (Harrisburg: Lane S. Hart, State Printer, 1879), pp. 20, 167. 1 D.L., ch. 54. 1792 Constitution, Art. VI 1831, 1897 Constitution, Art. IV.
2 48 D.L., ch. 109
3 1 D.L., ch. 154. 1792 Constitution, Art. VI
4 1831 Constitution, Art. IV.
5 1897 Constitution, Art. IV.
6 1 D.L., ch. 1854. 33 D.L., ch. 225
7 4 D.L., ch. 163
8 26 D.L., ch. 263
9 6 D.L., ch. 362
10 1831 Constitution, Art. VI. 45 D.L., ch. 101
11 17 D.L., ch. 18207; 46 D.L., ch. 101
12 36 D.L., ch. 248
13 36 D.L., ch. 10
14 37 D.L., ch. 14
15 37 D.L., ch. 12
16 40 D.L., ch. 221
17 40 D.L., ch. 38
18 1 D.L., ch. 75
19 4 D.L., ch. 88
20 10 D.L., ch. 186
21 14 D.L., ch. 418
22 38 D.L., ch. 18
23 22 D.L., ch. 335
24 1 D.L., ch. 131
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25 6 D.L., ch. 1, 24; 7 D.L., ch. 189
27 6 D.L., ch. 322
28 22 D.L., ch. 38
29 40 D.L., ch. 228
30 2 D.L., ch. 249; 7 D.L., ch. 194
31 4 D.L., ch. 65
32 5 D.L., ch. 224
33 11 D.L., ch. 397
34 7 D.L., ch. 194
35 2 D.L., ch. 108
36 17 D.L., ch. 210
37 22 D.L., ch. 133
38 22 D.L., ch. 363
39 33 D.L., ch. 227, 38 D.L., ch. 197
40 35 D.L., ch. 190
41 1 D.L., ch. 70
42 2 D.L., ch. 219
43 7 D.L., ch. 119
44 5 D.L., ch. 23
45 48 D.L., ch. 109
rlg: April 27, 1988; May 2, 1988; June 4, 1991