South Carolina Court of General Sessions - A History

This court dispensed justice and administered the law in criminal cases to the white poplulation. Cases brought against other freemen and slaves prior to the Civil War were heard by the Courts of Magistrates and Freeholders.

Initially, the Court of General Sessions functioned within the Grand Council, and a few cases are mentioned from 1671 to 1676 and in 1692 in the published Journals of the Grand Council. In 1698, the court became independent, and in 1731 a legislative Act named it the "Court of General Sessions of the Pease, Oyer, and Terminer, Assize, and General Gaol Delivery."

Although the court served the entire colony, it sat only in Charles Town - a situation that virtually deprived residents of the Upcountry of justice because of the distances to be travelled. After years of conflict and in response to pressure from various Upcountry vigilante groups known as the Regulators, the colony passed a circuit court Act in 1769, and by 1772, when courthouses and jails had been built, the residents of Beaufort, Camden, Cheraws, Georgetown, Ninety-Six, and Orangeburg Districts could finally find legal redress closer to home.

The court was served by the same justices as the Court of Common Pleas and drew its jurors from Acts that listed the names of taxpayers who qualified for jury duty.

Unfortunately, the colonial records of the Court of General Sessions fared poorly. One journal - 1769-1776 - and a few scattered loose documents are the only records known to have survived. The colonial newspapers, however, routinely printed both charges from the Chief Justice to the grand jury, and presentments from the grand jury.

At the onset of the Revolutionay War, the newly-created State Legislature adjourned the court during British occupation of Charleston, then passed an Act in 1783 calling for its resumption. The County Court Act of 1785 established county courts in every county in South Carolina. The jurisdiction of these course was fairly extensive in that it included criminal cases where judgement did not call for the death penalty or corporal punishment. But, the District Courts, which had been in operation since 1772, continued to hear more serious criminal offenses and functioned both as the courts of record and appeal. In 1798 and 1799, the circuit court Act abolished the old overarching Districts and four law circuits for the Court of General Sessions and the Court of Common Pleas.

The records of the Court of General Sessions are filed as county records with each clerk of court. An Act of 1839 reorganized the records of the clerk of court's office - case papers were to be filed under the term when cases were disposed of and arranged alphabetically by the name of each defendent. Other papers such as session journals, dockets, and indexes to session rolls were to be suitably labeled.

© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved