The three most commonly known types of records are deeds, wills and intestate proceedings. Those three types of court records are encountered by just about every resident in some way or another during their lifetimes. They will be discussed separately elsewhere in this section. At this time, the less commonly known types will be discussed, along with a history of the court system.
During the colonial period, there were not as many individuals as there are today who could spend all their time handling cases requiring court / judicial authority. The men who served as township, borough and county officials engaged in their own occupations and served the township, borough or county as time permitted. In a frontier county, such as Bedford, there were not that many residents, so the system worked alright. The county sheriff (aided by the township and borough constables) would accept any and all complaints made by one person against another. If the sheriff deemed it necessary to apprehend and take into custody any person accused of wrongdoing, he would take the matter before a local (i.e. township or borough) justice of the peace. The justice of the peace would make a determination of whether the accused person merited being confined until a court could be assembled. If the person was so judged by the justice of the peace, he or she would be apprehended by the sheriff or constable, and confined in the county jailhouse. The accused person would be held in the county jail until the next court session, which was held roughly every three months. The courts held every three months, or every quarter, were known as the Court of Quarter Sessions. During the sitting of the Court of Quarter Sessions, each and every case that had been brought up since the last Court of Quarter Sessions would be discussed and a judgement determined.
The Bedford County jailhouse was a two-story log structure with no windows on the first floor. A stairway on the outside of the building provided access to the second floor. A trapdoor was located inside the building on the second floor. When a person was to be confined to the jail, a ladder would be put down to the first floor from the second floor through the trapdoor, and the person would be made to descend into the fully enclosed first floor space. The ladder would then be drawn out, and the trapdoor shut and bolted. Because of the confining nature of the log structures first floor without windows, very few breakouts could be made from the jail.
The Court of Quarter Sessions was composed of three or more of the men who had been elected to serve as justices of the peace in the various townships that made up the county. Three justices of the peace constituted a quorum. The concept of the judge was something that would not come about until the adoption of the state constitution in 1790. The justices of the peace came from all walks of life: farmers, merchants, craftsmen. The courts were held only once every three months to accomodate that fact that the justices of the peace had other things to get done in their private lives. If there were not enough of the justices of the peace available to attend a particular session, a justice of the peace from a neighboring county would perhaps agree to sit in on this countys proceedings.
The Court of Quarter Sessions made judicial decisions on everything, both of a civil and a criminal nature. Later, following the adoption of the state constitution, when the court system was revamped and judges were elected and able to hold court on a daily basis, the Court of Quarter Sessions became a thing of the past. Many of the things that had previously been considered by the Court of Quarter Sessions were divided up among the different departments that make up the modern court system.
The first court to be held in Bedford County was convened on 16 April, 1771. The justices of the peace who presided on that session were Robert Cluggage, Robert Hanna, William Lochrey, William McConnell, William Proctor Jr and George Wilson. During that session, the justices dealt with the following items of business: The region embraced by the new county was redefined and township boundaries set. That was followed by the appointment of township officers. Robert Galbraith, Robert Magaw, Philip Pendleton, Andrew Ross, David Sample and James Wilson were admitted and sworn in as attorneys to practice in Bedford County. The justices then heard charges filed against John Kirts and Thomas Croyal who were claimed to owe certain amounts of lawful money of the Province of Pennylvania, to be levied upon their Goods and Chattels, Lands and Tenements to His Majetys ue... The final item of business the first Bedford County Court of Quarter Sessions dealt with was to announce to all vendors of liquor that they would be required to apply for a license at the next court. The names of five residents were recorded with the intention to be recommended to the governor of the province for approval to keep a tavern in the county. The first court was adjourned until July. It was during that second session, held on 16 July, 1771, that the new countys first criminal offense was heard and judged by the justices in attendance. That case involved The King vs John Mallen. The charge was felony theft. Mr. Mallen was judged guilty of the charge and ordered to "retore (or value thereof) the goods tolen, that he pay a fine of ix pounds to the Preident and Council for the upport of Government; that he receive twenty-two lahes on his bare back, between the hours of nine and eleven tomorrow morning; that he pay the cots of this proecution, and till this judgement is complied with, to tand committed."
The Constitution of the State of Pennsylvania was ratified by a Convention of delegates from the various counties on 02 September, 1790. The new Constitution provided some changes for the court systems in the counties. No longer would justices of the peace for the townships be rquired to form a court of quarter sessions.
According to Article V, Section IV of the new constitution:
Article V, Section V stated that:
Article V, Section VII stated that:
Article V, Section IX stated that:
The new constitution set forth directives for the creation of a registers office in each county for the probate of wills and granting letters of administration, and also an office for the recording of deeds. It also outlined terms of office for the various public officials and defined how they should be elected. The new constitution attempted to bring about a sense of uniformity between all the counties courts.
The judicial system for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania remained virtually unchanged into the mid-1900s. It was not until the year 1968 that it experienced broad changes. The changes were proposed as a result of the 1967-68 Constitutional Convention; they were approved by voters in April of 1968. Some of the changes in the local court systems included the following. There is one Court of Common Pleas for each county or multi-county judicial district. The Court of Common Pleas consists of both justices of the peace and judges. Justices of the peace are not required to be practicing lawyers. A justice of the peace, though, who is not a lawyer, must complete a course of training and pass an examination prior to being elected. The number of justices of the peace was set at one per magisterial district. That justice of the peace would serve a 6-year term. Unlike earlier practice, judges must be lawyers who have passed the bar exam for the commonwealth. A person may not serve as a judge if he or she is over the age of seventy years. Judges voted in by the voters of judicial districts serve a 10-year term. Within districts served by more than seven judges, a president judge is elected for a 5-year term. Within districts served by seven or less judges, seniority is followed in regard to who maintains the position of president judge.
Justices of the peace in some counties, such as those that were erected out of Old~Bedford, hear cases that include, but are not limited to, disputes between neighbors, traffic violations, charges of vagrancy or loitering, and suits involving small amounts of money. In the case of any dispute, a hearing before a justice of the peace is held initially. If the justice of the peace feels that the case requires being referred to a common pleas judge, it will be so directed; otherwise the justice of the peace will make a binding determination upon both parties. Common pleas judges hear more serious criminal cases and civil cases that involve large sums of money. The court of common pleas is also the court which handles cases pertaining to adoption, divorce and inheritance.
Although there may be variations between the individual court systems that are currently in operation in the present-day counties of Old~Bedford, the following are the basic duties of the different officers and departments. By knowing which officers and in which departments certain activities occur, the researcher should be able to determine where to look for particular types of records.
The county sheriff is considered the chief peace officer in the county, despite the fact that many of his duties might have been taken over by various police forces (e.g. borough, township and the Pennsylvania State Police). The sheriff functions as the executive officer of the court and is responsible to make sure that any decrees made by the court are carried out. The sheriff, in his fucntion as a peace officer, is empowered to make arrests and in a time of emergency is the primary person in charge to maintain the peace. The sheriff is normally in charge of the county prison although the day to day activities of the prison are controlled by the prison warden. The sheriff is also responsible for disposing of property taken in execution proceedings; the action is known as a sheriffs sale.
The register of wills is primarily concerned with the probate of wills. Part of the probate process includes the granting of letters of administration and letters testamentary and the filing of account of fiduciary. In some counties, the register of wills also serves as the countys clerk of the orphans court, and in that position maintains the orphans court records. The register of wills is responsible to collect taxes from decedants estates, file inventories of the estates and issue marriage licenses along with maintaining other types of court records and dockets. Intestate proceedings are sometimes recorded and maintained in the orphans court.
The recorder of deeds deals primarily with the recording and maintaining of documents pertaining to real property. The recorder of deeds also records and maintains mortgages and leins against real property. In the office of the recorder of deeds might be found other types of records including plat maps, commissions records, bankruptcy records, city ordinances and army discharge records.
The clerk and recording officer for the court of common pleas bears the title of prothonotary, which means chief notary. The prothonotarys primary responsibility is in recording and maintaining the records of the court of common pleas. In that capacity, the prothonotary signs and affixes the seal of the court of common pleas to all writs and processes generated by the court. The prothonotary enters and signs all judgements. The prothonotary also manages the taking of bail set for a defendant in civil cases. The prothonotary maintains files which include the minutes of the court of common pleas, trial lists, records of judgements and awards, appearance dockets, plaintiff and defendant indexes, petitions, arguments, execution records, equity proceedings, divorce records, charters, trusts, and in some counties, naturalization records.
The clerk of courts maintains the records of criminal cases. The word courts in the title of clerk of courts refers to the court of oyer and terminer and the court of quarter sessions, despite the fact that neither the term court of quarter sessions nor that of oyer and terminer are used much at the present time. The clerk of courts signs and affixes the seal of the court to all writs and processes generated in the criminal court cases. The clerk of courts records and maintains files which include quarter session dockets and juvenile court dockets. The clerk of courts, in some counties might also maintain records pertaining to indictment lists, complaints and arguments, tax collector bonds, constable records, jury lists, election records, prison records and records pertaining to the judgement of insane and feeble-minded persons.
The district attorney is the prosecutor for the commonwealth in all criminal cases. He has the authority to sign bills of indictment against a person charged with a criminal action.