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Pierson v. Post has been made famous by its use in American property law classrooms since the 1950s. It is often the first case law students study in property as it provides an introduction to the concept of first possession and how one acquires possession in a wild animal, the fox, owned by no one.
The case report reproduced in law school casebooks was created by New York’s first official law reporter George Caines after the case was argued by eminent counsel and reversed in Pierson’s favor at the New York Supreme Court. What law students generally read is a brief statement of the facts, followed the majority decision by Justice Daniel Tompkins and a dissent by Justice Brockholst Livingston.
The Judgment Roll is a copy — probably made by the clerk of Pierson’s lawyer Nathan Sanford — of the documents Sanford filed in his writ of certiorari to the New York Supreme Court. This was a process in which the loser before a Justice of the Peace could appeal the decision by asking for the New York Supreme Court to command that the Justice of the Peace explain what had been done before him in the magistrate’s court, in this case a jury trial held at Post’s request on December 30, 1802, for their review. It was the job of the New York Supreme Court to check, yes, all the ‘i’s were dotted and ‘t’s were crossed in the magistrate’s proceedings and if they were not, Pierson (the “now plaintiff” before the New York Supreme Court) was justified in winning a reversal of the jury’s 75¢ award for Post and his $5 in costs. The Judgment Roll also includes the command to Justice of the Peace John N. Fordham to return the documentation, Sanford’s six specific grounds of appeal, as well as the words the New York Supreme Court used in order to hold the case over from year to year until it was ultimately decided in Pierson’s favor on September 10, 1805. Sanford then filed this copy of all of the documents (those provided by Fordham, his own, and the New York Supreme Court) as the “Record” in the case on the same day.
This judgment roll was found by University of Toronto law professor and legal historian Angela Fernandez at the Division of Old Records, New York County Clerk’s Office in New York City in May 2007.
Each page of the judgment roll is reproduced with an accompanying transcript prepared by Professor Fernandez.
It has subsequently disappeared but a dataset was created to preserve the images and make them publicly available. You can find it here. A transcript of the Judgment Roll is also available as an appendix in Angela Fernandez, Pierson v. Post, the Hunt for the Fox: Law and Professionalization in American Legal Culture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Running Fox by Paul de Vos, courtesy of Museo Nacional del Prado.