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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 ($).


Local And Statewide Courts

The Courts

As previously indicated, courts within the United States are controlled by either the federal government or the individual states. Individual states have a sovereign capacity and courts are established under state statutes.

The names and jurisdictions (derived from state statutes) will vary from state to state and from one period of time to another. Although the state statutes will differ from state to state and two states may have statutes which are identical, their interpretations may vary.

Basically, most states have two types of trial courts, an intermediate appellate court and a supreme court (the highest court).

Trial Courts

In trial courts, officials handle many different types of cases―any type of case that will be decided by a judge or jury. In some states, such as Iowa, the trial court is called the District Court and in other states it might be called circuit courts. Trial courts have two types of jurisdiction:

General Jurisdiction - this jurisdiction is the state’s main trial system. “They hear cases outside the jurisdiction of the trial courts of limited jurisdiction. These involve both civil and criminal cases. One judge (often sitting with a jury) usually hears them. In such cases, the judge decides issue of law, while the jury decides issues of fact. A record of the proceeding is made and may be used on appeal. These courts are called by a variety of names, including (1) circuit courts, (2) superior courts, (3) courts of common pleas, (4) and even, in New York, supreme courts. In certain cases, these courts can hear appeals from trial courts of limited jurisdiction.”[1]

Limited Jurisdiction - this jurisdiction handles specific matters, normally without a jury. For instance, a probate or surrogates court for probate cases, traffic court for violations of traffic laws, a municipal court for violations against city laws, etc. In Florida, these courts are sometimes called “the people’s courts” because they handle minor type disputes involving citizens.

Trial courts handle two types of cases―criminal and civil.

Criminal Case

A case in which someone (the defendant) is accused of committing a crime. It is the responsibility of the court to determine whether the accused (the defendant) committed the crime as charged.


Steps in the process that are common to most criminal court cases:

  • Someone (the defendant) is accused of committing a crime against the state by violating a state or local statute.
  • They are “charged in a formal accusation called an indictment (for felonies or serious crimes) or information (for misdemeanors).” [2]
  • If the person is charged with a federal crime, the United States Attorney’s Office would prosecute the case. If the person is charged with a state crime, the state’s Attorney’s Office would prosecute.
  • Between the arraignment (first courtroom appearance) and the trial, there could be a plea bargain, a preliminary hearing and pre-trial motions.
  • If the case goes to court, a trial is held. The attorneys for both sides will plead their case by argument and bringing forth witnesses and/or evidence. If a jury trial, the jury will deliberate and produce their finding of guilty or not guilty. If a jury is not present, the judge will make the decision.
  • If found guilty, the defendant will be given a sentence. The sentence depends, among other criteria, on the severity of the crime.
  • If found guilty, the defendant then has the right to appeal the decision to a higher court.

Civil Case

A case which involves a claim by a party (person or company), called the plaintiff, against another party, called the defendant, charging that the defendant failed to carry out a legal duty. It is the responsibility of the court to determine whether the defendant failed to carry out a legal duty to the plaintiff.

Christine Rose summarizes the civil court process from beginning to judgment and has given permission for her summary to be used here.


 A simplistic outline of the court process will demonstrate the numerous opportunities for the case to have generated written records.

  • A person filed a complaint (or a bill in an equity action).
  • The Court issued a summons to the defendant to answer in writing the complaint (or bill) within a certain time period.
  • If the defendant did not answer as specified, judgment was entered in favor of the plaintiff by default.
  • If the defendant did answer in writing in the time required, the case continued.
  • If the case could not be settled between the plaintiff and the defendant, the case was heard in court. This could result in depositions of witnesses, and various other testimony, witness lists, etc.
  • The court rendered a judgment. (Or, in the case of a jury trial, the jury rendered the verdict.) If money was awarded in the judgment, the party owing the money was required to pay.
  • The execution: If a judgment for money was entered and not paid, the party to whom the funds were due could have the personal property of the debtor seized and sold to cover the debt. If that were insufficient, real property might be sold at a public sale to cover the debt. These actions generated paper including petitions to the court requesting the sale, newspaper notices, and postings at the courthouse and on the property.

Whenever there was a judgment against your ancestor, follow the paper trail to determine when the action started, when it ended, and every detail possible pertaining to the case.

Intermediate Appellate Court

Because of increased caseloads at the state supreme courts, you will find that most states have an intermediate appellate court. In the few exceptions, appeals will go straight to the state supreme court. These courts have been established based on state constitution or statute and may have limited jurisdiction. For instance, they may be limited by the monetary amount of the case, they may not be able to take criminal cases, they might have to take cases from specified courts, etc.

When a person is not “is not satisfied with the judgment of a state trial court may appeal the matter to an appropriate intermediate appellate court. Such appeals are usually a matter of right (meaning the court must hear them). However, these courts address only alleged procedural mistakes and errors of law made by the trial court. They will usually neither review the facts of the case, which had been established during the trial, nor accept additional evidence. These courts usually sit in panels of two or three judges.” [3] accessed 13 March 2012

Supreme Court

The highest court in the state is often called the Supreme Court, but, again, the names will vary―e.g., Massachusetts: Supreme Judicial Court, and Maryland: Court of Appeals. This court is the highest appellate court in the state. “In states without intermediate appellate courts, appeals may usually be taken to the highest state court as a matter of right. Like the intermediate appellate courts, appeals taken usually allege a mistake of law and not fact. In addition, many state supreme courts have original jurisdiction in certain matters. For example, the highest courts in several states have original jurisdiction over controversies regarding elections and the reapportionment of legislative districts. These courts often sit in panels of three, five, seven, or nine judges/justices.” [4] accessed 13 March 2012


  1. United States Courts. Educational Resources. "Understanding Federal and State Courts." accessed 13 March 2012
  2. Federal Courts and What They Do, What's the Difference Between Civil Cases and Criminal Cases? Federal Judicial Center: accessed 14 November 2013
  3. United States Courts. Educational Resources. "Understanding Federal and State Courts."
  4. United States Courts. Educational Resources. "Understanding Federal and State Courts."


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 

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

  • This page was last modified on 17 September 2014, at 17:32.
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