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Chancery, or equity, cases were suits requiring an equitable, or fair, solution. Because common, or statute, law could not provide an equitable solution of all disputes, it was necessary to have a judge who could hear testimony presented on behalf of both parties and render a fair solution as settlement of the dispute. Cases commonly brought before the Chancery Court included divisions of estates, land disputes, divorce petitions, and business partnership issues, among others.
To initiate a chancery suit, a bill of complaint or injunction stated the plaintiff’s grievances against the defendant, who then responded to the bill. A decision, or final decree, was issued by the court after consideration of all the evidence presented. Documentation included in the record of a chancery court case may include witness depositions, affidavits, reports of court-appointed commissioners, a docket listing plaintiff and defendant names, plats or surveys, wills, deeds, receipts, accounts, and other types of records necessary to fully document the case.
In 1637, Cecilius Calvert, Lord Baltimore, appointed the Governor as Chancellor of the province with authority to preside over chancery cases in court. Both law and chancery cases were first heard in the Provincial Court without a legal distinction between them. As long as the same person held the offices of Governor and Chancellor, that individual 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. By 1669, the number of chancery cases had increased enough to warrant a separate clerk for the Chancery Court.
Although the Chancery and Provincial Courts served as distinct bodies, they maintained close ties and met in joint session until the Chancery Court began to hold separate meetings in 1675. 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 for appointment of a Chancellor by the Governor and Council for an indefinite term. A register served as clerk for the court. An act of 1785 gave the court jurisdiction over the property and affairs of minors and mentally deficient persons.
In 1814, legislation reduced the court's caseload by granting county courts concurrent jurisdiction; because the Chancery Court sat in Annapolis, it continued to hear all Anne Arundel County cases. In 1851 the new state constitution provided for the gradual dismantling of the court. The Chancellor 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, and avilable on 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.