The introduction of the judiciary to the area now including Clark County came about as a result of events transpiring in 1841 in the Willamette Valley.
Settlers in the valley had addressed a petition to the United States Congress in 1838 and again in 1840 requesting that the protection of the laws of the United States be extended to this region. The petitioners put emphasis on their need for protection against crime, as well as a growing apprehension that Indians in Eastern and Southern Oregon were becoming hostile toward the settlers, such that a military force might be needed.
The need for law in civil cases, and to protect private rights, was not as immediate. In a meeting held on February 7, 1841 at Champoeg, which was then the principal settlement in the Willamette Valley, the Reverend Jason Lee advocated the selection of a committee for the purpose of drafting a constitution and code of laws for government of the settlement south of the Columbia River. Protection of these laws was also to be extended to settlers north of the Columbia so long as they were not affiliated with the Hudson's Bay Company.
The death of Ewing Young, on February 15, 1841, made the adoption of laws, and a judicial system to administer them, a more urgent proposition. Ewing Young was the richest settler in the region, and had taken possession of a land claim constituting practically the entire Chehalem Valley. This claim included a market place, a store, a bank, and a factory, as well as the largest farm in Oregon. Many of the region's inhabitants were involved in Young's affairs as creditors or debtors. Young died with no known heirs, and it was essential to the community that distribution be made of his property.
At a meeting of nearly all the male settlers in the Willamette Valley, on February 18, 1841, Doctor Ira L. Babcock was appointed supreme judge with probate powers. It was directed that until a code of laws could be drafted, Dr. Babcock would be governed by the laws of the State of New York, although apparently there was not a copy of the New York code existing in the territory.
One of the first judicial acts accomplished by Supreme Judge Babcock was to appoint an administrator for the estate of Ewing Young.
A subsequent meeting at Champoeg, on May 2, 1843, resulted in selection of a legislative committee directed to formulate a legal code. At a meeting on July 5, 1843, the body of laws presented by the legislative committee was adopted by the settlers of Oregon. The first law books which had reached the territory in 1842 were the laws of the First Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Iowa and thus, the Oregon statutes were based almost entirely upon Iowa statutes.
Also on July 5, 1843, the newly formed Provisional Government of Oregon
established four districts, two of which extended into the
area which would later become Washington Territory.
On June 27, 1844, an act of the legislative committee delineated the area lying north of the Columbia River, from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, as the Vancouver District. On December 22, 1845, an act was passed substituting the word County for District.
By an act of August 14, 1848, the Congress of the United States established the Territorial Government of Oregon, encompassing all territory of the United States lying west of the summit of the Rocky Mountains and north of the forty-second degree of north latitude.
On September 3, 1849, the Oregon Territorial Legislature changed
the name of Vancouver County to Clarke County, in honor of
explorer William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition,
whose name was misspelled.
The first meeting of the Clark County probate court occurred in 1850 in a room in the residence of Vancouver pioneer Amos Short.
By an act of Congress of March 2, 1853, the Territory of Washington was created out of a portion of the Territory of Oregon lying north of the Columbia River. The act vested the judicial power of the territory in a supreme court, district courts, probate courts, and justices of the peace. The supreme court consisted of a chief justice and two associate justices. The territory was divided into three judicial districts and a district court was held in each district, by one of the justices of the supreme court. The first Territorial Legislative Assembly divided the territory into three districts, placing Clark County in the Second Judicial District. The salary of the justices was set at $2,000 per year.
Under the Washington territorial government, 21 men served as justices of the supreme court, and sat as district court judges in their respective districts. They were: Edward Lander, Obadiah B. McFadden, Frances A. Chenoweth, William Strong, Edward Fitzhew, Christopher C. Hewitt, Ethelbert P. Oliphant, James E. Wyche, Charles B. Darwin, B. F. Dennison, Orange Jacobs, James K. Kennedy, Roger S. Greene, Joseph R. Lewis, Samuel C. Wingard, John P. Hoyt, Richard A. Jones, George Turner, William Langford, Frank Allyn, and Lucius B. Nash.
In October, 1855, the first courthouse designed for that purpose in the Washington Territory was built in Vancouver, at the present location of 9th and Reserve Streets. For 28 years this building was the site of the 2nd Judicial District Court when it sat in Clark County. In 1883, a new three story courthouse was built on the present courthouse site at 11th and Franklin.
When Washington attained statehood in 1889, twelve superior court judges were elected to serve the thirty-nine counties.