The New Netherland Court of Justice, 1626-1674

From 1626 onward, the Director and Council, acting together, exercised all executive and legislative power within New Netherland. These men also constituted the New Netherland Court of Justice, a tribunal with original civil, criminal and admiralty jurisdiction and the Director presided. From 1629 on, the New Netherland Court of Justice functioned as an appellate tribunal from decisions of the patroon and other courts of local jurisdiction. Cases were brought by the Fiscael, an officer of the court analogous to an Attorney General. The Fiscael was appointed by and reported directly to the Company in Amsterdam, which made him independent of the Director and Council. In the early days of the colony, whenever any of the Company's ships were in port in New Amsterdam, their captains were authorized to participate in the Council and the Court. Later, when special questions were to be deliberated by the Council, or special cases tried by the New Netherland Court of Justice, leading citizens were added to the Council pro hac vice.

Jurisprudence in New Netherland was based on the Provisionele Ordere (a contract between the colonists and the Dutch West India Company outlining respective rights and duties), the Company's Instructions issued to Director Verhulst (one in January and the other in April of 1625), and, in some instances, the Artikelbrief (regulations pertaining to employees of the Company). Controversies not covered by these documents were resolved in accordance with the laws in force in the Dutch Republic, based upon the Justinian Code.

Shortly after his arrival in New Netherland in May 1647, Director-General Pieter Stuyvesant designated the Vice-Director, lawyer Lubbert van Dincklagen, to preside whenever the Council met as a court although he reserved the right to act as presiding judge whenever he deemed a case “important.” In 1651, when the Vice-Director challenged some of Suyvesant’s actions, the Director-General attempted to removed van Dincklagen from office. The Vice-Director asserted that Stuyvesant did not have that power and, outraged, Stuyvesant had Van Dincklagen arrested and imprisoned. Some time later, the Vice-Director escaped from prison and fled from New Amsterdam.

The Court of Justice of New Netherland continued to decide all major controversies in the colony, but it soon became apparent that cases originating in New Amsterdam were overwhelming the court’s docket and the delays involved were unacceptable to the litigants. Director-General Stuyvesant established an advisory assembly, the Nine Men, and required that three of them on a rotating basis attend all sessions of the New Netherland Court of Justice to arbitrate civil cases assigned to them. The decisions of the Nine Men were subject to appeal to the Director-General and Council, and this system continued until 1653 when the Dutch West India Company ordered Stuyvesant to establish a separate court for New Amsterdam. From then on, the Court of Burgomasters and Schepens heard all cases within its jurisdiction, both civil and criminal. Although a right of appeal to the Council existed from the decisions of the court or its arbitrators, appeals were rare and this was attributed to the commonsense actions of the magistrates.

Although its case load was much reduced by the early 1650s, a major problem continued in the New Netherland Court of Justice — the Director-General was once more the presiding judge of the court. Stuyvesant lacked judicial temperament, was prone to lose his temper, tended to prematurely decide issues and regularly browbeat one or other of the parties to the case.


SOURCES

The New Netherland Register

New York Secretary of State. Dutch manuscripts, 1630-64