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Names of many Illinois residents may be found in civil court records of actions such as disputes over property or settlement of estates. Criminal court records have information of people involved in confrontations, thefts, or destruction of property. These records may give a person’s age, residence, occupation, and family relationships. Friends and neighbors may have given depositions as witnesses.
Since 1818, courts in Illinois have consisted of a Supreme Court and inferior courts. Major courts that kept records of genealogical value were established as follows:
- County courts were county-wide courts with jurisdiction over minor civil and criminal cases and, in some counties, probate matters. Separate probate courts were established in larger counties.
- Municipal (or City) courts had jurisdiction with circuit courts over civil and criminal actions.
- Justices of the peace had jurisdiction over misdemeanors and minor civil cases.
- County commissioners’ courts originally had county-wide jurisdiction over public roads, turnpikes, canals, taxes, and licenses, but have evolved into administrative rather than judicial bodies.
- Circuit courts were created as early as 1819. They became the major trial courts in 1964 when all other trial courts were abolished. The circuit courts have handled civil and criminal cases, probate and estate files, and guardianship, adoption, divorce, and naturalization records. Currently, there are 21 judicial circuits and a Cook County circuit in Illinois. Most of these serve several counties, and court sessions are held in each county. The circuit clerks in each county hold the records of cases heard in their court. Many court records have been transferred to IRAD depositories by the counties.
Other court records in Illinois were created by the Illinois Supreme Court (established in 1818) and intermediate appellate and police courts. The Chicago court system has included mayoral, superior, criminal, and family courts.
Since 1964, the records of all earlier courts have been in the custody of the circuit court in each county. Records of the former Cook County Superior Court and some other Chicago area courts are now with:
Circuit Court of Cook County, Archives Department
Room 1113, Richard J. Daley Center
Chicago, IL 60602
Telephone: 312- 443-5500
For more information about court procedures and records, see:
Clayton, John. The Illinois Fact Book and Historical Almanac, 1673–1968. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970. (Family History Library book 977.3 A7c).
A good brief History of the Illinois Court System is available at the website of the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit Court of Lake County, Illinois, covering from the early history of courts prior to Illinois becoming a state to the present.
Another online History of the Illinois Judicial System is available on the Illinois Courts website.
A history of the early court system in Illinois is:
Crossley, Frederic Bears. Courts and Lawyers. Three Volumes. Chicago, Illinois: American Historical Society, 1916. (Family History Library book 977.3 D3c; film 934965.) This work gives a brief history of the court system in Illinois and biographical sketches of those who affected the history of the courts and those who were part of the bar about 1916.
The court structure is described in:
Klein, Fannie J. Federal and State Court Systems: A Guide. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger Publishing, 1977, 103–8. (Family History Library book 973 P2kL.)
See the United States Research Outline (30972) for more detailed information on court records. Refer to the "Probate Records" and "Naturalization and Citizenship" sections for information about those specific court records.
Family History Library
Court records can be found in the Family History Library Catalog by using a Place Search under:
ILLINOIS - COURT RECORDS
ILLINOIS - LAW AND LEGISLATION
ILLINOIS, [COUNTY] - COURT RECORDS