United States of America v. Langham Johnston

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The court case United States of America v. Langham & Johnston illustrates the poor status of the legal system in the Northwest Territory and in the wider United States of America during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

During the 1780s, 1790s, and early 1800s, the Northwest Territory and then the State of Ohio was viewed as the frontier, where residents struggled to end lawlessness and bring civilization. Since the establishment of the Northwest Territory in 1789, a judicial system had been in place to try and maintain law and order in the region, but commonly even the best attempts to do so failed.

In 1801, Elias Langham was a judge of the Court of Common Pleas for the United States Territory Northwest of the Ohio River. During this same year, Langham found himself embroiled in a court case with the United States government. The exact details of the case remain unclear. In the end, a jury found Langham guilty and ordered him to pay a fine of one dollar and fifty cents plus court costs. The jury also found Langham's co-defendant, Mr. Johnston, guilty and ordered him to pay a one cent fine. The sheriff was to confine the two guilty men to jail until they paid their fines.

While this case may not seem to be an extraordinary one, it is important to note that Langham, one of the defendants, was actually the judge who presided over this case. Due to the lack of judges in the Northwest Territory and with professional ethics just beginning to be developed in the legal profession, Langham was able to serve as judge over his own trial. Clearly, by modern legal standards, such a conflict of interest would not be permitted today. With a lack of judges and with legal ethics just developing, though, cases like United States of America v. Langham & Johnston became much more likely in the late 1700s and the early 1800s. It is most interesting to note that, despite Langham's conflict of interest, a jury still found the judge guilty.