Amid the volley of muskets fired by revolutionary war reenactors, the plumed hats and thick cloaks of Knights of Columbus, the bow ties and ornate aprons of the Masons and the the scores of flowers placed solemnly at the monument commemorating a long-ago battle, Luzerne County Judge Richard Hughes gave a history lesson on local justice.
In Luzerne County, it began Connecticut style, Hughes told the crowd attending the 136th annual commemorative service of the Battle and Massacre of Wyoming Friday at the Wyoming Monument. Connecticut had laid claim to the territory and sent settlers courtesy of the Connecticut Susquehanna Company, which purchased the land from the Iroquois Indians in hopes of making a profit.
That meant adult males in each settlement selected “three able and discreet men to manage local affairs, suppress fights and preserve the peace of God and the king,” Hughes said. The trio met every three months to hear complaints and settle disputes.
The first three chosen locally — Lazarus Stewart, Zebulon Butler and Nathan Denison — became famous names in the area and in the Battle of Wyoming 236 years ago. They were, effectively, “the first judges of Luzerne County, although Luzerne County did not yet exist,” Hughes said.
Decisions by the men could be appealed, first to a council of male adults, then to the proprietors of the Connecticut Susquehanna Company, “an early colonial supreme court, if you will.”
The system was later changed to one with two judges appointed for the entire area, with Butler and Denison given the jobs.
When Pennsylvania and Connecticut tussled for final jurisdiction over the area, Pennsylvania won in 1784, Hughes noted, and initially introduced a Quaker judicial system that put God, not man, as the final arbiter.
The system did not live up to expectations, and revisions were made to more closely reflect the British system of justice, appointed people trained in the law. The area initially had two attorneys but both were killed in the Battle of Wyoming, Hughes said.
What kind of disputes were heard? Records have largely been lost, Hughes conceded, but those available show people fined “for disobeying the Sabbath,” ordered to repay with restitution for a stolen buckskin and that “infractions involving liquor were on the docket of nearly every court session.”
Hughes noted five Luzerne County men went on to be Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices, most recently Correale Stevens.
And he chose to quote former Luzerne County President Judge Joseph Augello in conveying the importance of the judicial branch.
“In the American system of government, independent courts are vital to our freedom. The people look to courts to keep government within its proper limits, to punish the guilty, to protect the innocent, to reduce the trauma and loss suffered by victims of crime.
“People have entrusted to our profession a separate but equal branch of their government. It is our duty to manage this trust with integrity and efficiency.”