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In 1637, Cecilius Calvert, Lord Baltimore, sent a commission to Maryland appointing the Governor as Chancellor of the province and thus empowering him to preside over chancery cases in court. Chancery, or equity, cases were suits requiring an equitable solution which could not be decided on the basis of common or statute law. Both law and chancery cases were first heard in the Provincial Court without a legal distinction. While the offices of Governor and Chancellor were held by the same person, he presided over hearings of both types of cases. However, when Charles Calvert replaced Philip Calvert as governor in 1661, Philip retained the chancellorship, presiding at equity cases when the governor was not present and serving as keeper of the Great Seal of Maryland. By 1669, the number of chancery cases had increased enough to warrant a separate clerk for the Chancery Court. The clerkships of the Chancery and Provincial courts were sometimes held by the same person until 1694, although the two offices and their records were kept separately.
While the Chancery and the Provincial Courts served as distinct bodies, they maintained close ties and met in joint session until 1675, when the Chancery Court began to hold separate meetings. The membership of both courts consisted of the Governor and Council until 1694, when the Governor and two non-Council members were commissioned as judges of the Chancery Court. The number of judges varied between three and seven until 1720, when it became a one-man court presided over by the Chancellor, almost always the Governor.
The offices of Governor and Chancellor were permanently separated by the Constitution of 1776, which provided that one person be appointed Chancellor by the Governor and Council for an indefinite term. A register served as clerk for the court.
The court's jurisdiction in equity cases was largely unaffected by the constitutional changes although other responsibilities were assigned to the Chancellor occasionally, including a requirement that election returns be filed with him. An act of 1785 gave the court jurisdiction over the property and affairs of minors and mentally deficient persons. The act also gave the Chancellor authority to appoint an auditor to audit and settle accounts.
The court's caseload was reduced by an act in 1814, granting the county courts concurrent jurisdiction, although the Chancery Court continued to hear all Anne Arundel County cases, since it sat in Annapolis. Prior to 1814 the county courts had equity jurisdiction only in cases involving small sums. In 1851 the new state constitution provided for the gradual dismantling of the court. The Chancellor was continued in office for another two years to dispose of the backlog, but no new cases were begun. In 1853 pending matters were transferred to appropriate county circuit courts or Baltimore City Superior Court.
For an introduction to the history of the Maryland Court of Chancery and the lives of the first Chancellors see: The High Court of Chancery and the Chancellors of Maryland, by William L. Marbury, presented to the Maryland State Bar Association at the 1905 Annual Meeting, in the Archives of Maryland On Line. For an indexed analysis of cases decided by the Chancellor of Maryland, and a thorough introduction to the role of the Chancery Court in Maryland law prior to the abolition of the Chancery Court under the Constitution of 1851 see William T. Brantley's annotated edition of Chancellor Bland's "Reports", 1809-1832.
The Maryland State Archives has carried out research using records created by this agency, to be found at the following links:
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See Also: PROVINCIAL COURT. MSA SH5.