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History of the Court

The Second Judicial Court

The Act of April 13, 1791

that implemented the judicial parts

of the Constitution of 1790 provided that Pennsylvania shall be

divided into five districts or circuits, the second of which shall

consist of Chester, Lancaster, York, and Dauphin Counties.

The Act of February 24, 1806

divided the state into ten dis-

tricts, with Lancaster, York, and Dauphin counties forming the

second district.

The Act of February 6, 1815

put Lebanon and Dauphin coun-

ties into the twelfth district, leaving only Lancaster and York

counties in the second.

The Act of April 11, 1835

removed York County from the sec-

ond and joined it into Adams County, creating the nineteenth

district. Consequently, Lancaster County alone constituted the

second district from May 11, 1835 onward to the present.

When William Penn drafted his “Frames of Government” for Pennsylvania, the Eng-

lish system was adopted. Judges skilled in the law administered justice in cases of serious

felonies and heard appeals in regional courts, while Justices of the Peace, appointed from

local citizenry, handled lesser offenses and administrative duties. Lancaster County was

well-served by its early Justices of the Peace. Most of the men appointed were exception-

al citizens, and many had served in the Pennsylvania Assembly as legislators. The provi-

sions of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790 required for the first time that local courts

have a presiding Judge “learned in the law”.

William Augustus Atlee was commissioned as the first President Judge of the Lancas-

ter County Court under the 1790 Constitution. He held court in a structure in Penn Square,

with the first session extended over four days, beginning October 31, 1791. The two trials

held during that term involved theft, one of a cow and one of a horse. The horse theft case

had been ordered held over for re-trial by order of the pre-constitutional court, and the

alleged cow thief was cleared on the condition that he pay court costs.

Thus, both as to a place in which to conduct business and the beginnings of a case

load, the 250 years of the constitutional judiciary we now celebrate owes a great debt to

the sixty-two years of colonial and commonwealth judiciary which preceded it, and to

William Penn’s foresight.