At right, a tariff filed in suit No. 6211, Cornelius H. Logan v. Pontchartrain R.R.Co.
With the passage of 1839 La. Acts 17, under the power granted by La. Const. art. IV, sec. 4 (1812), the Legislature created the Commercial Court of New Orleans. The act granted the Commercial Court concurrent jurisdiction with the already existing Orleans Parish Court and First Judicial District Court (courts of general jurisdiction), with the notable exceptions that the Commercial Court could hear no case involving (typically long drawn-out) disputes as to: ownership or possession of land; ownership of slaves; domestic relations; tort suits; or eminent domain expropriations. (See 1839 La. Acts 17, sec. 3.) The act also allowed parties to transfer actions pending in the existing courts to Commercial Court as a way of relieving the burden on the existing courts created by the large number and technical complexity of commercial disputes arising in the city. (1839 La. Acts 17, sec. 13.) The legislature also evidently intended to facilitate the speedy resolution of commercial disputes as a way of encouraging the development of commerce in New Orleans. Appeals from Commercial Court lay to the Supreme Court, which was bound by statute to decide any appeal taken to it. (1839 La. Acts 17, sec. 4.)
Charles Watts, a noted figure in the city's commercial life who had served as judge of the First Judicial District from 1832-36, received the appointment to the Commercial Court bench. His status equaled that of the judges of the existing courts. (1839 La. Acts 17, sec. 2.) Similarly, the rules the court adopted closely resembled those of the First Judicial District Court. (1839 La. Acts 17, sec. 7.) Judge Watts held court at the Merchants' Exchange and later at the Presbytere. Though the parties could elect to have a jury hear their case, Judge Watts himself decided most of the disputes.
A small (n=221) random sample of suits filed over the life of the court reveals that 51% involved financial instruments, either promissory notes (31%), bills of exchange (12%), or other instruments (8%); 26% involved debts for merchandise; 8% involved debts for services; 4% involved leases; and the remainder involved various miscellaneous disputes. The cases ranged from simple actions on a debt in which the defendant defaulted and the plaintiff received a speedy judgment to cases which required trial testimony on complicated factual and legal questions of liability and damages.
In the Logan v. Pontchartrain R.R. case, for example, Logan claimed that the railroad had lost his baggage on the last leg of a trip from Mobile to New Orleans in May of 1843. To support his claim, he enclosed a detailed inventory of the personal property he had placed in his "parcel of trunks and baskets." Of most concern to Logan: the loss of "an extensive theatrical wardrobe" which ran the gamut from "yellow buckskin breeches" ($15.00) to a champagne basket ($.50). The railroad countered by denying Logan's allegations, and added that according to its printed tariff (reproduced above), it bore no liability for loss of baggage because the tariff stated: "All baggage at risk of owners." Judge Watts disagreed, and found for Logan, awarding him $812 of the $1,236 he had claimed. The railroad appealed to the Supreme Court, which affirmed Judge Watts' judgment. Logan v. Pontchartrain R.R. Co., No. 5562 (La. May 27, 1845).
The Commercial Court ceased to exist at the adoption of the new constitution of 1845, which allowed for only those courts specifically set out in the constitution. La. Const. art. 75 (1845). Legislation transferred the Commercial Court's pending cases to the newly created Fourth District Court. (1846 La. Acts 32.)
The records include:
Manuscript records in English and French of the filings made in actions in the Commercial Court. The number of pages for a single suit ranges from two or three in suits which were "discontinued" shortly after filing to hundreds of pages in complex long-running cases (typically those transferred from other courts). Single suits may contain plaintiffs' petitions, defendants' answers, surety bonds, bills of lading, ships' charters, letters rogatory, extracts from the minutes, summonses, writs of fieri facias, and judgments. Some records also contain public notices printed in newspapers, contracts and plans, and extracts from account books.
Most of the records remain as originally filed (i.e., folded and in pigeonholes) though some of the records have been flattened and filed in acid free containers. All are in the Louisiana Division's basement archive.
The Louisiana Division also holds two manuscript volumes of uncertain provenance and date which list records thought to be missing. According to that listing, about 10% of the 8,000-plus records have gone missing. Recent work confirms that estimate, in that although some of the records listed as missing have reappeared, others not listed as missing have disappeared.
Docket Books and Indexes, 1839-1846
Bound manuscript volumes divided into two subseries: general and special.
The court maintained its general docket (4 v.) which recorded documents filed and action taken in a particular case, along with costs assessed, in case number order. The entries show in addition to the docket numbers, the parties' names and the attorneys (if any). The general docket has a plaintiffs' or direct index (3 v.) and defendants' or indirect index (2 v.).
The court also maintained a judgment docket book (2 v.), which recorded the judgments entered by the court (in the order entered) along with the case number, parties, attorneys if any, judgment terms (including amount and interest), and action taken (e.g. writ of fieri facias issued, judgment satisfied). It has a plaintiffs' (1 v.) and defendants' (1 v.) index.
Finally, the court maintained an execution docket book (2 v.), which recorded the writs issued (in the order issued), plus the judgment on which the writ is based and remarks of the sheriff or sheriff's deputy on satisfying or attempting to satisfy the judgment. This docket book has an index organized by plaintiff (1 v.).
The fourth general docket volume contains, in addition to the entries for Commercial Court, a series of docket entries (#3822-4661) of cases (probably tax collection suits) the State of Louisiana brought against individuals in March of 1879. Most of the entries end with the word "Paid."
Bound manuscript volumes chronologically organized in which the clerk made entries recording the proceedings held on a given day. The entries show the case number, parties, attorneys (if any), witnesses (if any), panel of jurors (in jury cases), and the action taken, including rulings on motions, scheduling matters, and judgments in cases. The minutes in addition served as a kind of permanent record for the court, in which the judge recorded the court's rules (v. 1, p. 1) and subsequent changes to the rules (e.g., v. 1, p. 312-15).
The single volume of Rough Minutes contains draft versions of minutes for early sessions of court (only up until June, 1839).
Bound manuscript volumes containing copies of the plaintiff's petition, defendant's answer (if any), jury verdict (in jury cases), the court's judgment, and the decree of the Supreme Court (if the case went up on appeal) for each suit decided, in the order in which the case became final.
The judicial record books show the essentials of every suit filed and decided in the Commercial Court. Only those cases decided after the court ceased operations and its cases went to the Fourth Judicial District do not appear in it.
Bound manuscript volume containing the sheriff's recordation of defendants' property seized (such as bills of lading, slaves, and immovables) and transferred to plaintiffs or sold at auction (with the proceeds going to plaintiffs). The volume contains a plaintiff's (direct) index.
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