Term of the day: lawful man

Those good men, lawful and true

It’s a phrase you see all over the court records, just about every time there’s a jury involved in the case.

lawful.manThey are, the document will almost invariably inform you, good and lawful men.

Or lawful men, good and true.

Or even, in the wonderful world of legal Latin, legalis homo.

And that seems to make sense.

Until the moment somebody says: “Just what exactly is a lawful man?”

Um…

Er…

Good question.

The Legal Genealogist doesn’t suppose you’d settle for “somebody who’s entitled to serve on jury,” would you?

Didn’t think so.

Okay, then.

Just for that, we’ll start with the Latin.

Legalis homo is Latin for “a lawful man, a person who stands in rectus in curia; a person not outlawed, excommunicated, or infamous.”1 Which of course means we need to look up rectus in curia: “Right in court. The condition of one who stands at the bar, against whom no one objects any offense.”2

So there you have it.

What? Not good enough?

Oh, all right.

Back to English.

A lawful man, Black’s Law Dictionary tells us, is “a freeman, unattainted, and capable of bearing oath.”3

Which, of course, raises the question of what unattainted means. (Sigh.)

To be a lawful man, the person had to possess all his civil rights,4 such as the right to vote and right to hold land. If you had lost those rights, you were attainted.5

So what did this lawful man bit really mean in practice? It meant a man (since you had to be male to serve on a jury), who owned land or was at least head of a household (you generally had to be a freeholder though some jurisdictions allowed heads of household even if they didn’t own land), and who hadn’t have ever been convicted of any offense that disqualified him from service (perjury was a big one).

In early days, the phrase had to be included in the court records, whenever a grand jury brought in a criminal charge in the form of an indictment and whenever a trial jury was seated, in order to prove that the jurors who acted in the case were legally qualified. Just saying the jurors were good and lawful men was enough.6 Leaving those words out could get the case tossed out of court. 7

Lawful man.

It really does just mean “somebody who’s entitled to serve on jury.”


SOURCES

  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 700, “legalis homo.”
  2. Ibid., 1007, “rectus in curia.”
  3. Ibid., 695, “lawful man.”
  4. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (1856); HTML reprint, The Constitution Society (http://www.constitution.org/bouv/bouvier.htm : accessed 15 Apr 2014), “legalis homo.”
  5. Attainder initially meant “that extinction of civil rights and capacities which takes place whenever a person who has committed treason or felony receives sentence of death for his crime.” Black, A Dictionary of Law, 103, “attainder.” It came to be used as a more general term for the loss of civil rights on conviction of a crime, without regard to the death penalty.
  6. See for example State v. Price, 11 N.J. Law 203 (1830), holding that the qualifications of grand jurors didn’t have to be included as long as they were described as good and lawful men.
  7. See Grandison v. State, 21 Tenn. 451 (1841), where the Tennessee Supreme Court said not saying that a grand jury of good and lawful men returned the indictment was enough to get the indictment thrown out.
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2 Responses to Term of the day: lawful man

  1. Good one. How about tackling Corporal Oath, Solemn Oath and Affirmation?

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