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  • Writer's picturePhillip Ratliff

Can you name the Alabama town in which Alabama's first Supreme Court convened? It's not Montgomery.

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

Formed in 1820 under harsh economic conditions, Alabama’s first Supreme Court would be unrecognizable to us today.

To help today’s Alabamians understand the history of the state’s highest appellate court, Backstory Educational Media is developing a permanent exhibit. The Supreme Court of Alabama is the commissioning organization. The exhibit will open Summer 2020 — marking 200 years of Alabama Supreme Court history.

Alabama became a state during the Panic of 1819, a lengthy economic depression caused by a sharp decrease in the international market price of cotton.

Eager to cut costs, the framers of Alabama’s 1819 Constitution assigned the duties of the Supreme Court to the state's five circuit judges, including the Court’s second chief justice, Abner Lipscomb, pictured here.

Today, the court consists of a Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices, all of whom are elected by popular vote on an at-large basis. But at the Court’s founding, the Alabama State House and Senate appointed justices. Qualifications did not include a law school education or even college; justices needed only to be practicing lawyers. Compensation and clerical support were meager, and turnover was frequent.

The first Court convened in May 1820 in the state capital at Cahaba, Dallas County. Because the fledgling state government could only afford a Capitol building (shown here), the proceedings took place in a private residence.

Last year, Backstory developed the traveling exhibit Alabama Justice: The Cases and Faces That Changed a Nation. Backstory founder Phillip Ratliff says he’s thrilled to get to develop another exhibit on Alabama jurisprudence.

“We’ve found a productive niche creating exhibits focused on public history, especially the history of jurisprudence in Alabama,” Ratliff says. "This new exhibit has the potential to further educate Alabamians on their proud history and to advance the cause of civic education in our state."

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