The first constitution of Michigan, in addition to providing for a supreme court, provided for courts of chancellor.1 There were three chancery circuits of which Van Buren County was in the third circuit.1 In addition, the state was divided into four circuit courts.1 It wasn't until around 1897 that Van Buren County Circuit Court became the 36th Circuit Court.1
Van Buren County’s first courthouse was completed in 1844.2 The courthouse originally had a steeple which was later removed.2 After the new courthouse was completed in 1902, the original courthouse was used as a feed store, and later the town hall.2 “Although a plaque on the village hall indicates the building was built in 1842 … records show it wasn’t completed until August 1844.”2 See image below from Herald Palladium.
“The first judge to hold a circuit court in Van Buren County was the Hon. Epaphroditus Ransom.”1 “Judge Ransom’s signature being rather unusually long, it was his custom to abbreviate his Christian name to ‘Epaphro.’”1
The records for the court prior to 1844 are so imperfect that it is impossible to ascertain the titles of the first suits that were begun, either law, criminal or chancery.1 However, the first criminal case tried in the circuit court was an assault and battery case, People vs Nathan Mears, in which the jury found the Defendant not guilty.1 The first civil case tried in the circuit was an appeal from the justice’s court, Nesbitt v. Reynolds, in which the jury awarded the Plaintiff sixteen dollars and forty-two cents with costs.1
Those that visit the current circuit courthouse may have noticed a painting on the steps leading up to the second floor. Luther W. Smith, a professor of political science, has explained the painting in detail. That painting is of Athena, the ancient Greek Goddess of civic virtue and family life. 3 Prof. Smith Explains Meaning of Courthouse Painting, Courier-Leader, Aug. 1, 1997. See photo below from the Courier Leader.
Smith stated that the “man’s head” in the painting is actual that of Medusa, queen of the evil Furies.3 According to Smith, “Athena was a favorite subject for artists who wished to portray some theme that would be both artistic and morally uplifting.”3
1 History of Van Buren County Michigan: A Narrative Account of its Historical Progress, its People, and its Principal Interests, By Captain O. W. Rowland, Vol. 1, pg 159, 161, 162, 165.
2 Modern Links, old buildings: Berrien officials to study Paw Paw building, by Dennis Cogswell, Herald Palladium.
3 Prof. Smith Explains Meaning of Courthouse Painting, Courier-Leader, Aug. 1, 1997.