Early Beginnings

Lake County's judicial history dates back to the 1830s. In 1835, prior to the birth of Lake and McHenry Counties, the territory was predominantly a part of Cook County and was within the Chicago precinct or election district. At the September 1835 term of the County Commissioners Court of Cook County a new precinct was formed, comprised of the territory north of Chicago, styled Lake Precinct. Elections were held at the house of Dexter Hapgood, about 6 miles south of the current site of the Village of Wheeling. At a special election held on October 17, 1835, Hiram Kennicott was elected Justice of the Peace; a total of 32 votes were cast. He was the first Justice of the Peace to serve in what is now the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit and was the first lawyer to practice in Lake County. He performed the first marriage in Lake County for William Wigharn and Caroline Wright in January 1836.

In 1835, the land in this part of the county was unsurveyed and, according to an 1829 treaty with the Indians, title remained in the name of the United States Government. For all practical purposes, the settlers were beyond the reach of statutory laws or civil authority. The law rested in every man's conscience; the people were a law unto themselves. At the Abington Inn in Warren Township, a group of settlers formed The Compact, an organization to protect legitimate settlers against claim jumpers. At the time, this was the only group enforcing the laws.

The first people to resort to the Court of Justice to settle a dispute were a Mr. Blaidsdell and a Mr. Ezekiel Boyland. The land in dispute was located in what is now Warren Township. The court action took place in January 1836 and was adjudicated by a Justice of the Peace in Chicago.

Another early action, in what is now Lake County, was heard by Justice of the Peace Hiram Kennicott in the fall of 1837. It was a proceeding in the name of the People of Illinois against Michael Dulanty for an alleged assault and battery. The parties lived in the vicinity of what is now Highland Park. The scene of the alleged conflict was the Green Bay House, a log tavern on Green Bay Road between what is now Highland Park and Highwood. The action was initiated by Arthur Patterson, the purported victim of the offense. Dulanty pled justification because his integrity had been impugned by Patterson. Patterson, who had just been elected Justice of the Peace, cited the dignity of his official position as a factor in aggravation. The Justice agreed with Patterson and said that it was a high offense to assault a person representing the dignity of a magistrate of the law.

In 1836, McHenry County was organized and embraced all of its current territory as well as what is now Lake County; McHenry County was created from Cook and LaSalle Counties.

The first term of the Circuit Court in the area now known as Lake and McHenry Counties was held May 10, 1838, at McHenry; the Honorable John Pearson presided in what was then the Seventh Judicial Circuit. Judge Pearson of Danville traveled to McHenry County to hold court in a session restricted by statute to three days. Court was held in the upper story of a log house which served as a tavern. With a docket of 62 cases, the Court heard 19 the first day; three of which were for trespass and one for slander. On the second day, the Grand Jury returned three indictments for larceny and one for assaulting an officer in the discharge of his duty. By the adjournment of court on May 12, 1838, all but 18 cases had been handled.

It has been said of the session that "this court was one of the curiosities of the day for there was scarcely an adult in the county who was not either a plaintiff, defendant, juror or witness. There were some regular backwoods times during the short sessions. All kinds of gaming at cards and horse racing were practiced. The essence of rye was dealt out at no small rate, not less than five or six barrels having been drunk and the place left dry, before Court rose."

There were 81 cases on the docket of the Circuit Court of McHenry County during the September term of 1838; at the May term of 1839 there were 138. Most cases arose from charges of counterfeiting and horse theft. During the early years of 1837 to 1839, the population appeared young and healthy. There were 52 marriages recorded, but no actions for probate were filed. The first case filed in probate was that of Samuel Tiebout in October 1839.

On March 1, 1839, an act of the legislature granted the prayer for a division of McHenry County, and Lake County was created. The May term of Court was the last one for the joint communities. By an act of February 23, 1841, the Seventh Judicial Circuit was made to consist of the counties of McHenry, DuPage, Cook, Will, Iroquois and Lake. It was assigned to Judge Theophilus W. Smith of Chicago.

The first term of the Circuit Court in Lake County was held in April 1840 at Independence Grove (now known as Libertyville) with Judge John Pearson again presiding. The first civil case disposed of was that of Samuel Hurlbut v. William Easton. The judgment of the lower court, which was for six dollars before a Justice of the Peace, was affirmed. The first criminal case was People v. John J. Gatewood. The defendant was indicted for stealing five dollars from Absalom Funk, a drover. When arrested, the defendant falsely announced that he was Senator Gatewood, a well-known Illinois legislator, and demanded an apology from the officer. When put on trial, however, he gave his real name of Shepard. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to one year in the penitentiary.

By October 20, 1841, the Circuit Court of Lake County was being held in Little Fort, now known as Waukegan, with Judge Theophilus W. Smith of Chicago, presiding. The sessions were held under the bluff in the upper room of a storehouse known as the Kingston Building.

Between 1841 and 1957 the judicial circuits were reorganized by acts of the legislature on four occasions. Lake and McHenry Counties remained circuit partners throughout. Then, in 1957, Lake and McHenry Counties were detached from the Seventh Judicial Circuit and became the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit. After almost fifty years together in the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit, the legislature recognized that two of the fastest growing counties in Illinois should be treated as separate circuits. As of December 2006, Lake County remains the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit and McHenry County has become the new Twenty-Second Judicial Circuit.