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The 1849 California Constitution provided for a State Supreme Court, to consist of a Chief Justice and two Associate Justices.  Several of the early justices proved to be colorful and even dangerous characters.

The fourth Chief Justice, David S. Terry, killed a U.S. Senator in a duel in 1859.  Terry was later killed himself during an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Stephen J. Field, California’s fifth Chief Justice and author of the state’s first civil and criminal codes.  In 1863, President Lincoln appointed Field to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Field served on the bench until 1897, making him the second longest-serving justice in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court had jurisdiction over writs of habeas corpus (the means through which an individual can seek relief from unlawful detention), and also served as the appellate body for civil disputes involving more than $200, conflicts over taxes or tolls, and felony criminal cases.  During Lincoln's lifetime the Supreme Court dealt with legal issues ranging from gold mining claims to fugitive slaves.  For instance, in 1852 the court decided the fate of Carter Perkins and two other African Americans who, while claiming to be free men, were remanded to the custody of a slave owner from Mississippi.


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Stephen J. Field's Oath of Office, 1858. Secretary of State Records, California State Archives.

Stephen J. Field's Oath of Office, 1858.

Secretary of State Records, California State Archives.


Carter Perkins, Fugitive Slave Case, Cover, 1852. Supreme Court of California Records, California State Archives.

Carter Perkins, Fugitive Slave Case, 1852, Page 1. Supreme Court of California Records, California State Archives.

Carter Perkins, Fugitive Slave Case, 1852, Page 2. Supreme Court of California Records, California State Archives.

Carter Perkins, Fugitive Slave Case, 1852, Page 3. Supreme Court of California Records, California State Archives.

Carter Perkins, Fugitive Slave Case, 1852, Page 4. Supreme Court of California Records, California State Archives.

Carter Perkins, Fugitive Slave Case, 1852, Page 5. Supreme Court of California Records, California State Archives.

Carter Perkins, Fugitive Slave Case, 1852.

Supreme Court of California Records, California State Archives



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