Appeals from Colonial Courts

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APPEALS FROM COLONIAL COURTS. Starting in the late seventeenth century, new proprietary and royal colonial charters reserved for the British king-in-council the right to hear certain cases on appeal from provincial courts. Through this appellate procedure the British Privy Council sought to bring the American colonial legal systems into conformity with England's, particularly in such matters as the rules of evidence and the jury system. Pending appeals, executions of the colonial courts were suspended. Such appeals were both costly and protracted.

Major issues of colonial policy—such as Indian relations, currency law, and intestate succession—were reviewed in litigation brought on appeal. For example, the Virginia clergy appealed to English authorities to disallow the Two Penny Act, a colonial law that effectively reversed earlier statutes that guaranteed Anglican ministers' tenures and salaries. Although the Privy Council upheld the appeal and disallowed the law, the ministers had to sue to recover back salaries from the period when the Two Penny Act was in effect, and these suits proved unsuccessful.

In another case, Winthrop v. Lechmere (1728), the council invalidated the Connecticut custom of divisible descent of intestate estates. In appeals of later cases, however, the council reversed its ruling, allowing colonial property law and inheritance customs to stand. The New England colonies at best grudgingly conceded the appellate authority. The Connecticut and Rhode Island charters made no provision for judicial review, and at times the Massachusetts authorities deliberately ignored an order of the Privy Council.


Greene, Jack P. Peripheries and Center: Constitutional Development in the Extended Polities of the British Empire and the United States, 1607–1788. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

Lovejoy, David S. The Glorious Revolution in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Richard B.Morris/s. b.

See alsoParson's Cause ; Privy Council ; Royal Disallowance .