The duties of the tipstaff

A tipped staff? Not exactly…

Well, actually, it is a tipped staff.

Sometimes.

tipstaffBut not usually.

And not in the reference reader Connie G. of Arizona found. “It’s a court record from Pennsylvania dated in 1842,” she wrote, “and it talks about the guy I think is my ancestor. I think it says he was a tipstaff. What the heck is that?”

Tipstaff. Plural: tipstaves. What a great word… one of those words The Legal Genealogist just adores.1

As you can see from the image here, it really can be a tipped staff: a ceremonial staff or baton with an ornate metal tip carried as a badge of office.2

But nobody was casting aspersions at Connie’s ancestor. He was, instead, a court officer.

In English law, a tipstaff was “an officer appointed by the marshal of the king’s bench to attend upon the judges with a kind of rod or staff tipped with silver, who take into their custody all prisoners, either committed or turned over by the judges at their chambers, etc.”3

And, Black’s Law Dictionary goes on to say, in American law, a tipstaff was “an officer appointed by the court, whose duty is to wait upon the court when it is in session, preserve order, serve process, guard juries, etc.”4

A contemporary synonym would be bailiff: “an officer in a court of law who helps the judge control the people in the courtroom.”5

The position still exists outside of the United States, in other common law jurisdictions. For example, “(e)ach judge in Ireland has a personal assistant in court called a ‘tipstaff’. He or she wears a black gown and when he or she is in court, he or she usually sits on a chair at one side of the judge. One of his/her duties is to announce the arrival and departure of the judge from the courtroom.” One difference there: “the tipstaff holds a long wooden staff when he or she is bringing the judge from chambers to the court and back.”6

The Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia, also still employs a tipstaff who “works … to provide courtroom and administrative support to a Judge but is not required to be legally qualified.” The tipstaff’s role is still, in part to “swear in witnesses, open and close the Court and generally ensure the maintenance of decorum in Court proceedings.”7

In England today, the tipstaff is “an officer of the Supreme Court whose duties involve the enforcement of High Court arrest warrants.”8

So now that we know what a tipstaff was and is… here’s the real quirk. What Black’s Law Dictionary doesn’t bother to mention about the tipstaff in American law is, almost nobody in America used the term — except in Pennsylvania.

A search of reported American cases from courts all across the country turns up just about 200 cases where the term is used by a judge in writing an opinion. Only a tiny handful are from states other than Pennsylvania and most of them are quoting cases from — you guessed it — Pennsylvania.

And it’s still used there.

Just this month, the Pennsylvania Courts adopted a rule about broadcasting judicial proceedings and, in it, provided that “The broadcast news person should advise the tipstaff prior to the start of a court session that he or she desires to electronically record and/or broadcast live from within the courtroom.”9

So what does a Pennsylvania tipstaff do? A 2012 court job posting said the tipstaff “performs entry level escort, announcement, and ceremonial work in a court of law to ensure courtroom decorum, compliance to courtroom procedures, and facilitates the overall function of the court during legal activities.”10

It then listed what it called essential functions:

• Prepares the courtroom prior to proceedings.
• Opens court by reciting standard announcements.
• Maintains order in the courtroom at all times.
• Swears in defendants.
• Maintains and accounts for all case files listed for trial.
• Maintains a daily total sheet for all case files.
• Provides limited courtroom security.
• Checks bags and packages of persons entering courtroom.
• Verifies emergency phones are working.
• Ensures that all forms, subpoenas, payment plans and orders issued by the presiding judge are complete.
• Locks all courtrooms when not staffed.
• Ensures that all cases are properly signed, priced and adjudicated correctly.
• Ensures that all cases are disbursed to the Court Listings Department for disposition.
• Assures the integrity of the proceedings.
• Assures that all parties required for trial are present.
• Maintains all necessary records as indicated by current courtroom procedures.
• Escorts defendants to the disposition area.
• Carries out the orders of the judge and assists with miscellaneous duties.[x. Ibid.]

In other words, Connie’s ancestor likely performed many of the very same functions that tipstaves do today — just as they have for generations — at least in Pennsylvania.

So why does Pennsylvania still call this position by the name tipstaff? I haven’t got a clue. No, really. I don’t know why. The Keystone State also labels its civil court clerks by the term “prothonotary.” If there’s a legal historian out there who knows why, I’d love to hear it.

And, by the way, in Canada? A tipstaff is a tipped staff, at least to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In its ceremony changing Commissioners, the RCMP uses the term to mean the baton itself — there, it’s passing the tipstaff, rather than passing the baton.11


SOURCES

Image: Simon Speed, via Wikimedia Commons.

  1. All right, so I’m a geek. This is a surprise how?
  2. See The Free Dictionary (http://www.thefreedictionary.com : accessed 28 Jan 2014), “tipstaff,” citing The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. (Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2009).
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1173, “tipstaff.”
  4. Ibid.
  5. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.m-w.com : accessed 28 Jan 2014), “bailiff.”
  6. Role of the tipstaff,” Citizens Information Board (http://www.citizensinformation.ie/ : accessed 28 Jan 2014).
  7. Duties of the Tipstaff,” About the Court, Supreme Court of Victoria (http://www.supremecourt.vic.gov.au : accessed 28 Jan 2014).
  8. Glossary of terms – Legal,” HM Courts & Tribunals Service (http://www.justice.gov.uk/courts/ : accessed 28 Jan 2014), “tipstaff.”
  9. Adoption of Rule 1910 of the Rules of Judicial Administration; No. 420 Judicial Administration Doc.,” 44 Pa.B. 454 (25 Jan 2014), Pennsylvania Bulletin online (http://www.pabulletin.com/ : accessed 28 Jan 2014).
  10. Position announcement, Tipstaff I (General), Philadelphia Traffic Court, 16 Nov 2012 (https://www.courts.phila.gov/ : accessed 28 Jan 2014).
  11. See e.g. “Commissioner’s Tipstaff,” Royal Canadian Mounted Police (http://www.rcmpolice.ca : accessed 28 Jan 2014).
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8 Responses to The duties of the tipstaff

  1. nancy says:

    Delaware also calls its Superior Court clerk “prothonotary.”
    Never heard that the bailiffs were anything other than bailiffs. :-)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I don’t think anybody uses “tipstaff” except Pennsylvania, Nancy. Didn’t know about Delaware and prothonotary, though. Thanks!

      • nancy says:

        As I recall, when I first moved to Delaware 30+ years ago, the Prothonotary was still an elected office! I don’t remember when it went to an appointed position, as it is now, though.

  2. GRG says:

    And Pennsylvania is also officially called a “Commonwealth,” rather than a “State.”

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      While that is, of course, true, I don’t see any reference to Pennsylvania here as the “State of Pennsylvania,” and last time I checked nobody — but nobody — ever called it the “Keystone Commonwealth.” :)

  3. Jade says:

    I can imagine that the staff was originally actually that, and was tapped on the floor as the Tipstaff cried his “oyez, oyez” or “hear ye, hear ye” to open the session of Court once the Justice was present and ready to proceed.

    I believe the Prothonotary was originally the clerk of the Orphans Court in PA Counties. Other States had and/or have Orphans Courts, but I have not seen their clerks called anything other than Clerks. Some Counties have combined the Clerks’ functions, but not the Courts’. The Orphans’ Courts are very interesting bodies. Not all genealogists know about them who should!

  4. Pingback: Recent Pennsylvania Genealogy News and Updates | GenVines

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