For some reason, many think that elected officials were once more competent than today. Of course, this is incorrect. Below is an example from Tennessee before the Civil War. It illustrates the incompetence of both the Macon County Court Clerk and the County Court itself.
Jefferson B. Short served as Macon County Court Clerk from 1848 until his death in 1857. Upon his death, the Macon County Court found that “He issued as such clerk, about seven hundred marriage licenses during his term of office, and failed to record them with the return upon them, as it was his duty to do by the statute on that subject. He also failed and neglected to record his settlements with guardians and administrators. For which duties thus neglected, he received the fees allowed by law.”
The County Court contracted with Short’s successor – a man named Price – to perform the duties Short had neglected. The cost of cleaning up the mess Short left was the substantial sum of $206.10.
In order to recover the cost of the correcting the problems their clerk’s incompetence left, the County Court successfully sued Short’s estate for breach of contract in a local court. Famed attorney M. N. Alexander was the administrator of Short’s estate. Alexander appealed the matter to the Tennessee State Supreme Court.
During the December 1859 term of the Supreme Court at Nashville, the Tennessee High Court ruled that there was “no principle upon which” the Macon County Court could collect monies from Short’s estate – but the justices did not stop there. In a curt opinion written by Justice Robert L. Caruthers the court blasted the Macon County Court.
Caruthers wrote, “It was the duty of the County Court to have seen that their clerk performed his duty in this, as well as all other matters pertaining to his office, and visited his failure to do so with such penalties as were appropriate to the case. He should have been removed for nonfeasance, or culpable neglect of duty.”
Caruthers also wrote, “. . . there may be no doubt” that if Short were alive, he “would be liable to criminal prosecution for extortion.”
Caruthers opined that Short’s “duties neglected [were] of importance to the public, and were enjoined both by his bond and his oath . . .” Thus, Caruthers contended that if the County Court had a claim at all, it was against Short’s bond – not his estate. However, the County Court did not make a claim against Short’s bond. Therefore, Caruthers stated that the County Court could not recover monies from Short’s estate to pay “for the labor of another without his request, consent or knowledge.”
Source: Head, John W. (State Reporter). Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Tennessee, During the Years 1859-60 (pages 475-477). Nashville: S. C. Mercer Printer to the State, 1866.
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