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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in November 2013. It is an excerpt from their course US Court Records  by C. Ann Staley, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


State Legislature And The Court

In the United States, with the exception of Louisiana, the common law system is used. This system of law is based on the customs of society “and recognized and enforced by the judgments and decrees of the courts.”[1] ; which means that prior case law is used to resolve disputes. In Louisiana, the civil law system (which comes from France) is used. This system is based on written codes to delineate the law.

There are two major components of ‘the law’—rulings by statutes (including constitutions) and rulings by courts.

State Statutes and Legislative Acts

The state has autonomy over her courts. State statutes (acts of the state legislature) dictate the jurisdiction of state and local courts. The state code is a collection of the state laws or regulations which typically address the concerns of the society and, on occasion, the relief or benefit of private individuals (private laws). The statutes, or acts, passed with annual legislative sessions are typically published annually. The annual volumes may be called session laws and are frequently arranged by subjects in codes.

Private Laws

State legislative bodies created, and continue to create, laws for the benefit or relief of private citizens or corporations. The private laws encompass a wide variety of subject matter including relief acts, divorces (early), name changes, and citizenship. Many of our ancestors who are involved in legislative acts will fall into this category.

Sometimes the private laws did not become part of state code since they were of strict individual nature. Consequently, we cannot expect to find private laws as part of the state codes; however, they are part of session laws.

The following private act[2] enacted by the Georgia legislature (and several similar private acts) provided Georgia Citizenship to selected Cherokee Indians.

An Act:

To grant the rights and privileges of Citizenship to certain persons, and their descendants of the Cherokee tribe of Indians hereinafter named, and to remove all legal disabilities heretofore imposed, on said tribe of Indians, so far as respect said persons.

Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the State of Georgia in General Assembly met, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That from and after the passage of this act, that the wife and children of John Langley; the wife and children of Lock Langley; the wife and children of David Shaw; Maliga Parris, his wife and children; the wife and children of Alfred Scudder; the wife and children of Alfred Hudson; the wife and children of John Rogers; William Rogers, wife and children; Robert Rogers, wife and children; Joseph Collins and children; Charles Vickory and children; the wife and children of Charles Harris; the wife and children of Bird Harris; the wife and children of William Harris; the wife and children of Parker Collins, deceased; Charlotte Vickory and children; the wife and children of Samuel Bennett; the wife and children of Silas Palmer; the wife and children of Lewis Blackburn; Charles Duncan, wife and children; George Welch and children; and George M. Waters, and his descendants, be, and they, and each of them, are hereby permitted to enjoy all the rights and privileges that appertain and belong to the free citizens of this State; and that all disabilities heretofore imposed upon said persons of the Cherokee Tribe of Indians, be and the same are hereby repealed.

Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That the before mentioned persons shall be liable to perform all and singular the duties of citizens of Georgia.

Joseph Day,

Speaker of the House of Representatives

Charles Doughtery,
President of the Senate

Assented to, December 29th, 1838.

George R. Gilmer, Governor       

Similar private acts were also passed by the Georgia House and Senate in 1838-1845, granting citizenship to a few other families in the Cherokee and Creek tribes.

On 15 August 1904 Georgia’s state legislature passed a resolution to pay pension of John S. Flynt, of Monroe county, Georgia, to Lucy Flynt, his daughter.

Whereas, The said deceased, John S. Flynt, had been drawing a pension of fifty ($50.00) dollars per year, under existing laws of Georgia for the payment of pensions to invalid ex-Confederate soldiers; and, Whereas, It appearing that there is still due and unpaid a pension of fifty ($50.00) dollars due to said deceased; be it therefore

Resolved, by the House of Representatives, the Senate concurring, That the said sum of fifty ($50.00) dollars due to said deceased John S. Flynt be paid to Lucy Flynt, the daughter of said John S. Flynt, deceased. And the Governor is hereby authorized to draw his warrant on the treasury for the payment of said sum out of any funds in the treasury not otherwise appropriated.

It is hoped that the samples cited above will serve as motivation to all to take the time to search for our ancestors within the acts and resolutions of the state legislature.

Session Laws

The statutes (laws) enacted by state legislatures are kept chronologically as session laws. As researchers, we will frequently need to use the state code or session laws in order to understand the jurisdiction of the court and the meaning of various legal terms. Frequently, this source is evaded since the session laws must be checked year-by-year and may not include a complete name index.

The laws passed fall into various categories:

Substantive Laws - “The part of the law that creates, defines, and regulates rights, including, for example, the law of contracts, torts, wills, and real property; the essential substance of rights under law.”[3]

Procedural Laws -these laws are used to enforce the substantive laws. In other words, they provide the procedures that must be followed to bring suit or may provide for which courts must be used.

Criminal Laws - these laws are used to punish individuals for crimes against society.

Civil Laws - above we learned that there is a civil law system. There is also, in a different context, civil laws; that is, laws that define the rights between two or more private parties.

Municipal Ordinances/Laws

Local areas of government can also pass laws, as long as they do not go against state and federal laws and do not go against statutory or constitutional provisions. These laws are made by towns, cities or municipalities and are used to govern their areas of responsibility. Usually the charter that created the town, etc., governs what laws can be created. These laws can govern zoning restrictions, collection of sales/local taxes, etc.


  1. The Free Dictionary by Farlex, "Common law": accessed 9 Mar 2012
  2. State of Georgia, Acts of the General Assembly of the State of Georgia, Passed in Milledgeville at an Annual Session In November and December, 1837 (Milledgeville, Ga.: The State, 1838), pp. 68-69.
  3. The Free Dictionary by Farlex, "Substantive Law": accessed 9 Mar 2012.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US Court Records

offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at 

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