Front Page Main

Published on November 23rd, 2015 | by Millennium Magazine Staff


The Establishment and Early History of the District Court of South Carolina

Pictured: Charleston County Courthouse

By Hon. Richard Mark Gergel

“Copyright South Carolina Bar.  Reprinted with permission.”

Upon the adoption of the Judiciary Act of 1789,[1] which established a national judicial system of 13 judicial districts, President Washington faced the daunting task of getting a court system up and running across the vast landscape of the newly established United States of America. His first acts involved the appointment of federal judges, who he pledged to be “the fittest characters to expound the law … and dispense justice.”[2] Washington’s first choice for the South Carolina District judgeship was Thomas Pinckney, an Oxford educated Revolutionary War brigadier general who had served as governor of South Carolina. Pinckney declined the appointment, stating that a judgeship was incompatible with his interests. Pinckney would later serve in Congress and as United States Ambassador to Great Britain.[3]

Pinckney recommended to President Washington the name of William Drayton to serve as South Carolinas first federal district judge. This nomination was somewhat controversial because Drayton had served as a British colonial office holder and had something of a reputation as a fence sitter during the early Revolutionary period. Drayton’s qualifications, however, were unquestionable. He was trained at the Middle Temple in London and was serving as an associate justice of the S.C. Supreme Court and judge of the S.C. Admiralty Court.[4] 

Drayton brought another asset to his service as South Carolina’s first district judge: he already had chambers and a courtroom at the Exchange Building as a result of his service as a state judge. This was no small thing because public space for the courts in Charleston was fairly limited at the time. Judge Drayton simply changed hats from the state to the federal judiciary and began holding the district court’s proceedings in the Exchange Building.

Judge Drayton was appointed district judge by President Washington on November 18, 1789, and conducted the opening ceremony for the court on December 14, 1789.[5] In this first court proceeding, Drayton presented his signed commission from President Washington as evidence of his appointment. This commission is remarkably similar to the commissions all district judges receive to this day. Drayton then announced the appointment of Thomas Hall as the first clerk of court, Julius Pringle as the first U.S. Attorney and Isaac Huger as the first U.S. Marshal.[6] Five days later, on December 19, 1789, the court held another session and formally adopted rules of the court and rules for admission to practice, set terms of court and created grand jury and petit jury lists.[7] In sum, within a month of his appointment, Judge Drayton had the District Court for the District of South Carolina up and running. This rapid establishment of court rules of practice was necessary because Judge Drayton tried his first case, an admiralty action, George Abbot Hall, Collector of the Port of Charleston v. Eight Barrels of Sugar, etc. on board the Sally Sloop and Letty, on January 7, 1790.[8]

The federal district courts were courts of limited jurisdiction, and the more serious trials were conducted by the federal circuit court. There were, however, no appointed federal circuit judges. Instead, circuit-riding U.S. Supreme Court justices would serve as circuit judges, sometimes sitting with district judges on multi-judge panels. South Carolina-based U.S. Supreme Court justices John Rutledge and later William Johnson would sit in trials in South Carolina as circuit judges. The clerk of court and U.S. Attorney for the district court served in the same position of the U.S. Circuit Court. The circuit court initially had no permanent home in South Carolina and would meet in available public space. At times, this included using the Long Room over McCrady’s Tavern.[9]

Judge Drayton’s service as South Carolina’s first district judge would be brief, since he died in May 1790, just a little over six months after his appointment. He was replaced by Thomas Bee, who had served as Speaker of the S.C. House, Lieutenant Governor and a member of the Continental Congress. Unlike Judge Drayton, Judge Bee had a well-earned reputation as a passionate patriot during the Revolutionary War. He was dubbed by one British official as a “furious Liberty boy,” and his loyalty to the new nation was unquestioned. Judge Bee did not have the best social skills, however, and was described as a person of “crude, restive temper” who was “very desirous of order in the house but most apt to transgress it himself.” Judge Bee collected and published his major opinions, which were among the earliest published opinions in the new nation. Judge Bee served as South Carolina’s second district judge from June 1790 until 1811.[10]

The Old State House, which sat at the corner of Meeting and Broad, had burned in 1788 and underwent repairs over the next several years. In December of 1792, the renovation was completed, and Judge Bee moved his court from the Exchange Building to the newly designated Charleston County Courthouse. Judge Bee’s courtroom was on the second floor literally on the corner of Meeting and Broad.[11] The renovation of the Charleston County Courthouse after damage from Hurricane Hugo recreated the courtroom as it existed when Judge Bee presided. The U.S. Circuit Court also conducted its proceedings in the County Courthouse in that same courtroom.

During the federal district and circuit courts’ use of the courtroom in the Charleston County Courthouse, which was from 1792 until 1837, some highly controversial cases arose that reflected some of the early tension between the state and federal governments—tension that would eventually lead to civil war. One of the most notable of these cases was Elkinson v. Deliesseline, an 1823 case decided by U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Johnson sitting as a circuit judge.[12] Justice Johnson, a resident of Charleston, was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson and was Jefferson’s first appointee to the United States Supreme Court in 1804. In the summer of 1822, white citizens of Charleston awoke one morning to the report of a major slave conspiracy that involved a plan to poison the town’s water supply and burn the city. The leader of the alleged conspiracy was Denmark Vesey, a free man of color. Rather than prosecute Vesey and the other alleged conspirators in the regular criminal courts, the mayor of Charleston appointed a special court of city leaders to try the conspirators. The trials were not conducted in public, and the defendants were not allowed to hear the evidence against them.

An anonymous editorial was written in the local newspaper criticizing the lack of due process for the slave conspirators.[13] City leaders quickly figured out that the author of the anonymous editorial was Justice William Johnson. He was harshly criticized as disloyal for his criticisms and shunned by most former friends and acquaintances. Justice Johnson became essentially persona non grata in Charleston. Justice Johnson was unbowed by the public shunning and wrote his close friend Thomas Jefferson a private note in December of 1822 about the unfair trial procedures used to try, and then execute, more than 30 men:

I have lived to see what I really never believed it possible I should see–

courts held with closed doors, and men dying by the scores who had never

seen the faces nor heard the voices of their accusers.[14]

The public hysteria over the Vesey slave conspiracy led to the adoption of the Negro Seamen’s Act by the S.C. General Assembly.[15] Based upon the theory that Vesey and other slave conspirators may have been radicalized by free black sailors who visited the Charleston port, the Negro Seaman’s Act required that if any black sailor came into the Charleston Harbor on a ship, he was to be placed for the duration of the ship’s port call in the Charleston City Jail.[16] The captain of the ship would then be responsible to pay for the black sailor’s detention. If the captain declined to pay the fee, the sailor would be sold into slavery.

British officials were understandably disturbed when a British subject, Henry Erikson, was pulled off a British ship upon arrival in Charleston and placed in the city jail. The British consul retained counsel and filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal circuit court. City leaders appeared in the federal courtroom across the street to defend the state’s challenged Negro Seaman’s Act and discovered that the judge hearing the case was none other than Justice Johnson. Justice Johnson made short shrift of the city’s defense of the Negro Seaman’s Act:

Now according to the laws and treaties of the United States, it is both

lawful for this seaman to come into this port, in this vessel, and for the

captain to bring him in as a sailor; and yet those are the very acts for

which the state imposes these heavy penalties. Is there no clashing in

this?  It is in effect a repeal of the laws of the United States …, converting

a right into a crime.[17]

            Justice Johnson then concluded:

Upon the whole, I am decidedly of the opinion that the … act … is

unconstitutional and void, and that every arrest made under it

subjects the parties making it an action of trespass.[18]

Justice Johnson’s opinion in Elkinson was the first instance in which a federal judge declared a state statute unconstitutional under the Supremacy Clause, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.[19] The decision was widely condemned in South Carolina as a usurpation of state sovereignty. A year later, in 1824, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark unanimous decision authored by Chief Justice Marshall, Gibbons vs. Ogden, affirmed Justice Johnson’s interpretation of the Supremacy Clause.[20]

The federal courts again stirred public controversy in the early 1830s when Justice Johnson and U.S. District Judge Thomas Lee confronted enforcement of the Tariff Act of 1828, dubbed by many South Carolina leaders as the “tariff of abomination.”[21] Both recognized the national government’s power to impose the tariff and state government’s lack of power to overturn it. Again, there was a storm of protest over these federal decisions from South Carolina federal judges, leading in many ways to the Nullification Crisis, which was ultimately resolved by a congressional compromise fashioned by Daniel Webster in 1833.[22]

The state-federal tensions stirred by these controversial cases ultimately led the federal court to move from the Charleston County Courthouse in 1837, relocating to the Planter’s Hotel on corner of Meeting and Queen Streets, where the Mills House Hotel now stands. The federal court rented rooms at the Planter’s Hotel for $1,300 a year, still not having its own dedicated courthouse. The federal court remained at the Planter’s Hotel until 1846, when the court moved to a building at 23 Chalmers Street, later known as the Confederate Home.[23]

The facilities at 23 Chalmers Street were completely unsatisfactory, but the federal court did not have the financial means to move to a more suitable location. A federal grand jury issued a report highly critical of the court’s facilities:

… [T]he building now occupied by the court … is totally unfit for the purposes

for which it is used … [T]he location of the building is upon a paved street with

a steam cotton press upon one side, and a livery stable opposite … [T]he noise

occasioned by the rolling of vehicles and the continual passing of heavy loaded

wagons is so great that the business of the court has frequently to be suspended

from inability to hear the judge, the counsel or the witnesses.[24]

The court, however, remained in the Chalmers Street location until November 7, 1860, when word reached Charleston regarding the election of Abraham Lincoln. The Grand Jury was sitting in the court on that day and announced they were unwilling to continue their duties on behalf of the United States. Judge Andrew Magrath, who had served as U.S. district judge since 1856, then solemnly announced his intention to resign, removed his judicial robe and stated that “the Temple of Justice … is now closed.”[25]

The federal courts in South Carolina then shut their doors until March 12, 1866, when Judge George Bryan was appointed a district judge by President Andrew Johnson. The state was then under military occupation. There was limited public space available for the court, and the court occupied the former John Rutledge House at 116 Broad Street until 1868.[26]

In 1869, the federal court moved to the Charleston Club House, a former social club that was purchased by the federal government. The club had been used for the 1868 Constitutional Convention in January to March 1868, which provided for universal male franchise. This building was located on the corner of Meeting and Broad Streets at the present location of the federal courthouse. The building had two floors, grand Corinthian columns, a slate roof and brick covered in stucco. Scribner’s Monthly, in an article published in June 1874, described the building as an “elegant structure” and the seat of the federal court, where “white and black men sit together in juries … ”[27]

In 1884, prior to the Great Earthquake, the federal court moved into the newly constructed U.S. Custom House. The federal court occupied a portion of the second floor of the building.[28] Still today, one can see the carved imprint of the scales of justice over the doors on the east side of great hall on the second floor of the Customs House.

Finally, in 1896, the federal court had constructed, for the first time, its own dedicated courthouse at the corner of Meeting and Broad Streets. The grand building was authorized by Congress as a show of support for the beleaguered city devastated by the 1886 earthquake. The U.S. Post Office occupied the first floor and the federal courts occupied the second and third floors. The courtroom and offices had mahogany trim, red marble wainscoting and pink marble flooring.[29] As noted by the historic marker on Meeting Street, the Charleston Federal Courthouse is most associated with the landmark civil rights decisions of U.S. District Judge J. Waties Waring. These include the 1947 decision in Elmore v. Rice[30] declaring the white primary unconstitutional and Waring’s legendary dissent in 1951 in Briggs v. Elliott[31] that provided the framework for Brown v. Board of Education[32] three years later. The building’s historic courtroom has been named the Sol Blatt Courtroom, in recognition of Judge Blatt’s now 44 years of service as a district judge, the longest tenure of any district judge in the 225-year history of the District of South Carolina.

Over the great expanse of American history—from President Washington to President Obama, from the birth of a new nation to civil war to two world wars, and from a primarily agrarian society to an industrial society and now to the digital age—the federal courts have been there, upholding the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law. Sometimes the courts have done a better job than at other times but, in the end, the federal judiciary has played a critical role in helping this nation achieve its highest ideals. The South Carolina District, created at the inception of the federal system, has been an integral and vital part of this great judicial system and appropriately marks and celebrates this important moment in its long and distinguished history. 


Hon. Richard Mark Gergel is a United States District Judge, District of South Carolina.


[1] Judiciary Act of 1789, ch. 20, 1 Stat. 73, 74.

[2] Letter from George Washington to Edmund Randolph (Sept. 24, 1789) in Writings of George Washington (1788-1790), at 418 (John C. Fitzpatrick ed. 1939).

[3] Peter Graham Fish, Federal Justice in the Mid-Atlantic South: United States Courts from Maryland to the Carolinas, 1789-1835 15 (Administrative Office of the Courts 2002).

[4] Id. at 16.

[5] General Minutes of the United States District Court, District of South Carolina (December 14, 1789) (on file with the National Archives at Atlanta, Georgia).

[6] See id.

[7] General Minutes of the United States District Court, District of South Carolina (January 7, 1790) (on file with the National Archives at Atlanta, Georgia).

[8] Admiralty Records of the United States District Court, District of South Carolina (January 7, 1790) (on file with the National Archives at Atlanta, Georgia).

[9]Historic Sketch of the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina” 8-11 (1979) (on file with the Clerk of the District of South Carolina at Columbia, South Carolina)); see also City Gazette, Oct. 26, 1790, at 2.

[10] Fish, supra note 4, at 16-17.

[11] Carl R. Lounsbury, From Statehouse to Courthouse:  An Architectural History of South Carolina’s Colonial Capitol and Charleston County Courthouse 57 (University of South Carolina Press 2001).

[12] 8 F. Cas. 493 (C.C.D.S.C. 1823) (No. 4,366).

[13] David Robertson, Denmark Vesey: The Buried History of America’s Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It 88-89 (Alfred A. Knopf 1999).

[14] Id. at 108-09.

[15] Fish, supra note 4, at 254.

[16] 1822 S.C. Acts 2277, § 3.

[17] Elkinson, 8 F. Cas. at 495.

[18] Id. at 496.

[19] U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2.

[20] Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat. 1) (1824).

[21] Fish, supra note 4, at 258.

[22] Id. at 258-59.

[23] Lois McLeod, A Brief History of the United States District Court Courthouses in South Carolina 13-14 (on file with the author and the Clerk of the District of South Carolina at Columbia, South Carolina).

[24] Journal of the United States District Court, District of South Carolina (May 19, 1858) (on file with the National Archives at Atlanta, Georgia).

[25] McLeod, supra note 24, at 15.

[26] Id. at 16-17.

[27] Id. at 18-19 (citing Scribner’s Journal (June 1874).

[28] McLeod, supra note 24, at 19-20.

[29] Id. at 20-22.

[30] 72 F. Supp. 516 (E.D.S.C. 1947).

[31] 98 F. Supp. 529 (E.D.S.C. 1951) (J. Waring, dissent), rev’d Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

[32] 347 U.S. 483 (1954).


About the Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

two × three =

Back to Top ↑

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!