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Tapping the Scales of Justice - A Dose of Connecticut Legal History

Tapping Reeve and the Litchfield Law School

The Litchfield Law School, the first of its kind in the United States, was founded by Tapping ReeveTapping Reeve and the Litchfield Law School in 1784. The custom for students of law in the 18th century was to be tutored privately or serve under apprenticeships. Tapping Reeve, after being admitted to the bar, began his instruction in this fashion teaching individuals in his living room. He developed a curriculum of all areas of the law and allowed students to operate a Moot Court. Eventually, Reeve constructed a school next to his home to accommodate the growing enrollment. He operated the school single-handedly until 1798 when he was appointed as a judge to the Superior Court. He then invited a partner, James Gould, to join him at the school.

Distinguished alumni of the school included several Vice Presidents of the United States, as well as numerous Senators, Congressmen, Cabinet Ministers, Governors, and Judges. In 1966, the Department of the Interior designated the school the first law school in the United States. The Tapping Reeve house and Litchfield Law School still stand and are operated by the Litchfield Historical Society. Visitors may tour the site in Litchfield, Connecticut from May to October.

In 1814, Tapping Reeve was elevated to Chief Judge of the Supreme Court. Many of his decisions can be reviewed in the early Connecticut Reports. He frequently wrote decisions as if he were lecturing a classroom of his students, asking rhetorical questions and then answering them. He also often reached back to English law for authority or to use as an analogy when writing opinions. Here is what he had to say in a case involving trespass:

"suppose that the lord of a manor should sell a highway through his manor... no deed to any person of the land covered by the highway being executed... what would pass to the public by the sale... Nothing but a right of passage for the king and his subjects...the rest would remain the property of the lord of the manor." [See 1 Conn. 103 (1814)]

For further reading on Tapping Reeve and the first law school see:

2 Conn. Bar J. 72, 19 Conn. Bar J. 245, and 40 Conn. Bar J. 440

Doses of Connecticut Legal History