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Courts and Court Records

In 1836 Michigan was divided into three judicial circuits, and judges of the supreme court performed the duties of circuit judges. Kent county was organized March 24 of that year and soon thereafter judicial functions began within its own limits. From 1836 to 1852 Supreme Court Judges Epaphroditus Ransom, Charles W. Whipple and Edward Mundy held court in Grand Rapids, but their work was supplemented by associate judges, two chosen within the county for a term of three years. The early associate judges here were John Almy and Arnot Davis, 1837 to 1841; Ezekiel W. Davis and Philander Tracy, 1841 to 1844; and Rix Robinson and Lewis Reed, 1844 to 1847. John Almy was chosen in 1844, but failed to qualify, and Lewis Reed took his place.

In the early days the visiting judges "rode the circuit" at fairly regular intervals, traveling cross country on horseback or stage, and sometimes by boat. There was not much business to dispose of, and usually they remained from a day or two to a week, then went on.


The state constitution of 1850 made the office of circuit court elective and the term of office six years. In 1852, the year fixed by the constitution, George Martin was elected circuit court judge in Kent county. He was succeeded in 1858 by Louis S. Lovell, in 1870 by Birney Hoyt, in 1882 by Robert M. Montgomery and in 1888 by William E. Grove.

By legislative act of 1889 a second circuit judge was provided for the county, and Marsden C. Burch was appointed to hold the office to December 31, 1893. But the democratic party contended that Judge Burch could not legally serve under an appointment after the date of the next regular election following 1889. The party accordingly nominated Allen C. Adsit for the circuit bench and his name was on the ticket at the November, 1890, election. The republicans, however, claimed Judge Burch could legally serve until December 31, 1893, and they did not place his name on their ticket. As the votes showed Mr. Adsit was elected he carried his contention to the supreme court of the state, which on February 5, 1891, declared he was entitled to the seat. Judge Burch at once resigned and Judge Adsit took his place and served until January 1, 1900.

At the spring election of 1899 Alfred Wolcott and Willis B. Perkins were elected to the circuit court bench, and were re-elected in 1905. Judge Perkins has sat on the bench here ever since, but Judge Wolcott died before his second term expired and John S. McDonald was appointed his successor for the unexpired term. Judge McDonald was re-elected in 1911 and served until he was elevated to the supreme court of the state and the governor appointed Judge Major L. Dunham, then serving as magistrate of the superior court. Judge Dunham was elected to serve himself and now holds the office.

An act of the legislature in 1911 gave Kent county a third circuit judge, and in November, 1912, William B. Brown was elected.


In the last twenty-five years numerous additions have been made to the jurisdiction of the probate court. Among the more important of these is the establishment of the juvenile court, which has jurisdiction over delinquent, dependent and neglected children under the age of 17 years.

Under the legislative act of 1915 the judge of probate also has jurisdiction as follows:

"Of all matters relating to the settlement of the estates of all deceased persons, whether testate or intestate, who were at the time of their decease inhabitants of, or residents in this county, and of all who shall die without the state, leaving any estate within such county to be administered.

Of trusts and trustees in the execution of wills and administration of estates of deceased persons.

He may appoint guardians to minors and others in the cases prescribed by law, and settle the estates of such minors and others under guardianship.

The court also has power to confirm the adoption and change of name of minor children' to authorize the change of name of an adult; to admit insane persons to the hospitals of the state and to fix the amount that shall be paid from their estates or by their relatives toward their support at the hospitals; to provide for the treatment of patients to the Home for the Feeble-Minded and the Michigan Farm Colony for epileptics; and to appoint commissioners to determine the necessity of taking land for drains or for railroads.

Under the provisions of the juvenile law the court is authorized to grant relief to mothers under certain conditions."

The first judge of the probate court here was Jefferson Morrison, August 1, 1836, to December 31, 1844. His successors were: James A. Davis, 1845 to 1848; Solomon L. Withey, 1849 to 1852; Robert P. Sinclair, 1853 to 1856; William A. Robinson, 1857 to 1864; Benjamin A. Harlan, 1865 to 1876; Cyrus E. Perkins, 1877 to 1884; Lyman D. Follett, 1885 to May 30, 1887; Cyrus E. Perkins, June 7, 1887, to 1896; Harry D. Jewell, 1897 to 1911; Clark E. Higbee, 1912 to the present time.


By act of the 1875 legislature the superior court of Grand Rapids was created, its first term to begin in June of that year. This court was given jurisdiction concurrent with the Kent circuit court in cases in which both parties reside in the city or when one resides here and service on the other may be had in the city. It has exclusive jurisdiction of all civil actions at law or in equity brought by or against the board of education and by or against the city or any of its officers. It ahs exclusive appellate jurisdiction, when appeals are made, of all cases arising in the police court of the city out of the breach of any provision of the charter or ordinances of the city. It also was given criminal jurisdiction for felonies committed under the laws of the state within city limits. The recorder's court functions were transferred to the superior court by the legislative act.

The following have served as superior court judges: John T. Holmes, 1875 to 1881; Isaac H. Parrish, 1881 to 1887; Edwin A. Burlingame, 1887 to 1899; Richard L. Newnham, 1899 to 1904; William J. Stuart, 1905 until his death January 20, 1915.

At Judge Stuart's death the city council assumed the right to name his successor on the theory that the superior was strictly a municipal court, and February 1, 1915, appointed Joseph Renihan. But Governor Woodbridge N. Ferris, claiming that the appointive power lay in him, on February 5 named Peter Danhof. Thereupon Mr. Danhof started quo warranto proceedings against Mr. Renihan and the former's appointment was held valid by the state supreme court March 5. Mr. Renihan served as judge only four days.

Peter Danhof became superior court judge March 5, 1915. At the April election in the same year Major L. Dunham was a candidate against him and was elected. Judge Dunham took the office April 12, 1915, and was elected to succeed himself the following year. After re-election he served until April 1, 1922, when he was appointed to the Kent circuit bench by Governor Alex Groesbeck, to succeed Judge John S. McDonald. At the same time the governor named Leonard D. Verdier judge of the superior court. In 1923 Judge Verdier was elected to succeed himself, and is the present incumbent of the office.


The United States district court for the western district of Michigan was organized by act of Congress December 24, 1863.

Solomon L. Withey was the first district judge, serving from 1863 to 1886. His successors have been Henry F. Severens, 1886 to 1900; George P. Wanty, 1900 to 1906; Loyal E. Knappen, 1906 to 1910; Arthur C. Denison, 1910 to 1911; Clarence W. Sessions, 1911 to the present. In 1925 Congress provided for a second judge for the district, and Fred M. Raymond was appointed.

The terms of Judge Knappen and Denison here ended when they were elevated to the United States circuit court of appeals for the sixth circuit, which comprises the states of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Judge Knappen retired from that bench in 1924, but Judge Denison is still a member.


Transcriber: Ronnie Aungst
Created: 16 January 2000
URL: http://kent.migenweb.net/etten1926/court.html