Skip to Main Content

History of Clatsop County Circuit Courts

On June 22, 1844, less than a year after the first wagon trains rolled into this area, Clatsop County was created by the Oregon Provisional Government. Clatsop County had been carved out of the Northwest portion of Tuality District, which had contained all of the country south of the northern boundary line of the United States, west of the Willamette, north of the Yamhill River and east of the Pacific Ocean. In area, Clatsop County was nearly double the size it is today. On December 15, 1853, the southern part of Clatsop County was added to part of Yamhill County to form Tillamook County. After this, the boundaries were moved a short distance back and forth several times.

Alonzo Skinner was appointed as Oregon's only Circuit Court Judge in 1846. He sat in Clatsop County twice a year until President James Polk appointed Orville Pratt to Oregon's Territorial Court in 1849.

On October 6th, 1849, the Oregon Territorial Court met for the first time in Clatsop County. Orville Pratt sat as a Circuit Court Judge. The Grand Jurors were James Welch, A. Van Dusen, Samuel Gardner, Ashael P. Edwards, Ira McKean, Eli C. Crow, Ambrose McKean, Henry Marlin, John W. Camp, Henry Aiken, Samuel Ransom, John M. Shively, Orin Pottle, W. W. Raymond, W. L. Plummer, Alfred Smith, G. W. Coffenbury, Conrad Boelling and Robert Shortess.

On September 2, 1850, the first County Court met in Lexington, which is now part of Warrenton. The Court functioned to mediate disputes, bring to trial and punish those who broke the laws of the County, handle probate, make arrangements for the care of orphans and indigents, bury the drowned, license stores, saloons and tin-pan alleys, naturalize citizens, and perhaps most important of all, build and improve roads.

Clatsop County Historical Society Quarterly
Vol. 14, No. 4 - Fall 1994

County Court

The County Court had various duties including building and maintaining roads, issuing business licenses, recording marriages, sale of property, liens and mortgages, arranging for the care of orphans and others dependent upon the community, maintaining lists of men eligible for military service, assessing property values and collecting taxes, settling probate, and burying unclaimed bodies.

The County Court's judicial powers in cases of probate were eventually taken over by the Circuit Court.

Specialized legal training was not required to hold office as County Judge. Business management skills were more useful as the population grew and the work of government became more complex. The Sheriff, Assessor, Treasurer, Surveyor and Coroner reported to the County Judge. Judge Guy Boyington was County Judge from 1929 through 1963.

The County Court became the Board of Commissioners in 1964. In 1988, voters approved a home rule charter and a county manager was hired. The position of county judge no longer exists.

Circuit Court

Circuit courts are state trial courts of general jurisdiction. Judges on this Court must be members of the Oregon State Bar. Clatsop County has three circuit court judges: Paula Brownhill, Philip L. Nelson and Cindee S. Matyas.

The Oregon Territory and later the State of Oregon were divided into districts composed of several neighboring counties. Each district was served in the early years by one judge who rode the circuit from one county to the next, hence the name "Circuit Court."

Under the territorial government, Clatsop County was in the 2nd judicial district; in 1870 it was in the 4th judicial district; in 1892 it was in the 5th judicial district; in 1939 it was in the 20th; and in 1952 it was added to the 19th judicial district. In 2002, Clatsop split from Tillamook and became the 18th judicial district.

Justice and District Courts

Before district court existed, the Justice of the Peace presided over Justice Court in Clatsop County. This court handled civil cases involving a dollar amount lower than that generally handled by Circuit Court. It also handled minor misdemeanors and small claims and performed marriages.

The 1957 Legislature created the position of District Court Judge, replacing the Justice of the Peace. Under the old system, justices were not required to be attorneys, but District Court Judges were required to be members of the Oregon State Bar.

Merger of Circuit and District Courts

In 1998, one of the biggest changes in Court history of the State of Oregon occurred when District Court merged into Circuit Court. The Circuit Court handles all state court matters now.

Our Courthouse

The original Clatsop County Courthouse was constructed in Astoria in about 1855 on the corner of 8th and Commercial street. This photograph was taken about 1893. The building on the left in the background was the first jail. It was torn down in 1913.


courthouse 1893

In 1904, the current Clatsop County Courthouse (below) was constructed on the same building site to replace the earlier wooden structure. The Courthouse currently houses the District Attorney, and the Circuit Courts. This more recent Courthouse photograph was taken between 1905 and 1915. The electric rail cars were preceded by horse-drawn cars.


current courthouse
 Special Thanks
A special thank you to Lisa Penner of the Clatsop County Historical Society and to attorney Scott McArthur for providing historical information.