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Court records are usually searched after other records have already been investigated, but they should not be overlooked. Court records can establish family relationships and places of residence. They often provide occupations, descriptions of individuals, and other excellent family history information.
Many of your ancestors' names will be found in court records—perhaps as defendants, plaintiffs, witnesses, or jurors. They may have participated in cases involving:
|Licenses||Appointment to public offices|
|Taxes||Civil and criminal lawsuits|
Many other matters brought before a court.
Because of their great importance to family history research, court records of “Probate” and “Naturalization” are discussed in separate sections of this outline. Divorces are discussed under “Vital Records.”
Unfortunately, court records tend to be difficult to use. The records are usually not well-indexed, there are many records, court names and jurisdictions changed, and they use many legal terms and abbreviations. To interpret court records you may need to consult a dictionary, such as:
Black, Henry Campbell. Black's Law Dictionary. Sixth Edition. St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing, 1990. (FHL book 340.03 B564L 1990.)
Evans, Barbara Jean. The New A to Zax: A Comprehensive Genealogical Dictionary for Genealogists and Historians. Second Edition. Champaign, Illinois: B. J. Evans, 1990. (FHL book 973 D26e.) Gives archaic, occupational, and legal definitions. Includes a list of nicknames.
There are three main types of legal cases you may find in court records.
Civil. These cases involve violation of laws when an individual (but not society) is harmed, such as property damage, trespass, or libel. In these cases, one or more individuals file suit against other individuals to enforce private rights or to receive compensation for violation of rights.
Equity. These involve disputes or arguments between individuals and do not involve violation of laws. In these cases, individuals petition the court to reach a fair decision for both parties. Examples of equity action are cases involving probates of estates and property rights. Today this function is mostly handled by civil courts.
Criminal. These involve the violation of laws in which society is or may be harmed, such as drunk driving, theft, or murder. In these cases, the state (or “the people”) file suit against the defendant. Serious crimes are felonies. Minor crimes are misdemeanors.
The United States has a dual judicial system. The federal (national) courts only try cases involving violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal statutory law. These are usually criminal cases.
The state court systems try both criminal and civil cases involving a state's constitution, laws, statutes, and local customs. Most civil cases and many criminal cases are tried in state courts. Most equity cases are tried in county or local courts.
Major Types of Court Records
Dockets. Often called court calendars, these are lists of cases heard by the court. Dockets usually list the names of the plaintiff and defendant, the date the case was heard, the case file number, and all the documents related to the case. They are usually in chronological, not alphabetical, order, but they may be indexed. They serve as a table of contents to the case files.
Minutes. These are brief daily accounts kept by the clerk of the court of all actions taken by the court. They usually include the names of the plaintiff and defendant and a brief description of the action taken. They are in chronological order and are seldom indexed.
Orders. These are the specific judgments or orders of the court. They usually include a brief description of the case and the judgment to be carried out. Some court actions recorded in court orders—such as orders granting citizenship, appointments of guardians, and re-recording of deeds to replace destroyed land records—are not found in any other court records.
Case Files. These generally contain the most helpful family information. A case file consists of a packet or bundle of all the loose documents relating to the case, such as the copies of evidence, testimony, bonds, depositions, correspondence, and petitions. To find a case file, obtain a case file number from the docket, the minutes, or an index.
The federal court system began in 1789. A federal district court was established in each state. As the population grew, some states were divided into two or more districts. There are presently 89 districts in the 50 states. The district courts usually had jurisdiction over federal civil and equity cases, with limited criminal jurisdiction until 1866. Their jurisdiction has included admiralty, trade, bankruptcy, land seizure, naturalization, and, after 1815, non-capital criminal cases.
Three federal circuits were established to cover the whole country in 1789. The number gradually expanded to nine by 1866. Federal circuit courts had jurisdiction over all matters (especially criminal) covered by federal law. They also had some appellate functions from the district courts. In 1891, U.S. circuit courts of appeal were created to hear appeals from the district courts. They had the same boundaries (or circuits) as the circuit courts. The original circuit courts retained limited powers that often overlapped those of the district courts. In 1911 the original circuit courts were abolished.
To learn more about federal courts and their records of genealogical value, see The Archives: A Guide to National Archives Field Branches (described in the “Archives and Libraries” section of this outline).
State and Local Courts
Each state has the equivalent of a state supreme court and its own system of local courts, usually organized within counties or districts. Each court has jurisdiction over designated geographical areas and specific types of legal matters. The names and responsibilities of the courts in each state have changed and evolved throughout the years.
To learn about the courts where your ancestor lived, consult the “Court Records” section of the appropriate state research outlines. You may need to contact a local courthouse to learn about the courts that have served in that area.
Locating United States Court Records
Some states and counties are microfilming their early court records or gathering them to central locations, such as the state archives. Most court records, however, are still at the local courthouses. You can usually request photocopies or search the indexes or dockets for the time period and surnames you need and, after obtaining a case file number, request photocopies of the complete case file.
Some court records and indexes have been printed. These are often summaries or abstracts of the records rather than the complete records. Many of the early court records of the original colonies and some later states have been published in various series called “archives,” such as the Pennsylvania Archives (see the state research outlines).
The Family History Library has copies of many of the published records and indexes. The library also has microfilm copies of indexes, minutes, dockets, and orders from many local courthouses. The library does not generally acquire copies of the complete case files or packets. You can find further information about court records in research outlines available for each state. The holdings of the Family History Library are normally listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under one of the following:
[STATE] - COURT RECORDS
[STATE], [COUNTY] - COURT RECORDS
[STATE], [COUNTY], [TOWN] - COURT RECORDS
The records of most pre-1950 federal district and circuit federal courts are collected by the National Archives regional branch that serves the area. Records of the Supreme Court are indexed in the Supreme Court Digest. Records of the U.S. circuit courts of appeal are indexed in the Federal Digest. These publications are available at most law libraries and federal repository libraries. The Family History Library has copies of a few federal court records. For details about federal court records see:
Sourcebook of Federal Courts: U.S. District and Bankruptcy. Public Record Research Library. Tempe, Arizona: BRB Publications, 1993. (FHL book 973 P2fc.) Explains court structure, record keeping, record searching, state-by-state districts, counties covered, addresses, telephone numbers, indexing information, and search fees.
Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Luebking. The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 1988. (FHL book 973 A3sz.) Pages 94-122 give federal court history and structure, record content and types, arrangement, finding aids, state-by-state location of records, and microfilm collections of court records at regional branches.
Many adoptees desire to identify their birth parents. This information is found in adoption records kept by a court, but these records are usually sealed and can be obtained only for good reason by getting a court order. These modern court records are not available at the Family History Library. You will need legal assistance to request a court order. You can also contact one of the many organizations that have been established in most states to assist adoptees. Further suggestions and addresses, including suggestions for locating missing persons, are in:
Askin, Jayne. Search: A Handbook for Adoptees and Birthparents. Second Edition. Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx Press, 1992. (FHL book 973 D27aj 1992.)
Klunder, Virgil L. Lifeline: The Action Guide to Adoption Search. Cape Coral, Florida: Caradium Publishing, 1991. (FHL book 973 D27kL.)
For the most up-to-date information about people who can search this kind of court record contact:
People Searching News
P.O. Box 22611
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33335-2611