Missouri’s first Supreme Court

Elizabeth Davis
The Missouri Supreme Court Building in Jefferson City.

Two hundred years ago Missouri was working its way through the process of becoming a state. Part of that process included the creation of the Missouri Supreme Court.

In November 1820, Governor Alexander McNair appointed the first three men to have the honor and responsibility of sitting on Missouri’s Highest Court.

The first appointment went to Mathias McGirk on Nov. 13, 1820. McGirk was born in Tennessee in 1783. He had moved to Missouri by 1812 and in 1813 was nominated to the Missouri Territory Legislative Council, serving from 1814 to 1817. In 1820, the people of St. Louis elected McGirk to represent them in the State Senate, a position he held until his appointment to the Missouri Supreme Court in November. Judge McGirk was the first Chief Justice and served as such his twenty years on the bench. Judge McGirk retired in April 1841, and died Aug. 14, 1842, in Montgomery County.

John Dillard Cook was appointed to the Missouri Supreme Court on Nov. 16, 1820. He was born in Virginia in 1792. The family moved to Kentucky when he was seven. Cook studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1814. He moved to Missouri in 1816 and practiced law in Ste. Genevieve County. Cook served as a delegate to the state convention when Missouri’s first constitution was drafted. Cook accepted the appointment to the Missouri Supreme Court and wrote the first opinion that was published in the Missouri Reports. He resigned from the bench May 1823. Cook was reappointed twice but declined to serve, choosing instead, a seat on the Tenth Judicial Circuit Court. After resigning in 1848, he served as U.S. district attorney for eastern Missouri until 1850. He died Oct. 28, 1852, in Cape Girardeau.

John Rice Jones was the third and last of the original judges appointed by Governor McNair to the Missouri Supreme Court. Born in Wales in 1759, Jones studied both medicine and law in Oxford, England. He moved to London around 1783 where he started his law practice. He moved to the U.S. the following year, settling in Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin was one of his acquaintances. From there he moved to Kentucky, served in the military, and moved again, this time to the Indiana Territory where he served as attorney general. After an active political life in the Indiana and Illinois territories, he relocated to Missouri where he moved around until he finally settled in Potosi. In 1820, Jones served as a delegate to the state convention that drafted Missouri’s first constitution, following which, he was appointed to the Missouri Supreme Court. Judge Jones, the first to die on the bench, passed away on Feb. 1, 1824.

Many men and women have followed in their footsteps and continue to serve the people of Missouri.

Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News since April 2008, She has covered the War Between the States, US history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s upcoming Bicentennial, she syndicated her column statewide in September 2018 and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.davis@gmail.com