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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 ($).


Trial Courts

U.S. District Courts (RG 21)

As we learned above, in the Judiciary Act of 1789 a system of circuit courts was used as trial courts for most federal cases. So, before 1 January 1912, you will be looking at the U.S. Circuit Court records for trial court records.

With the passing of the Judiciary Act of 1911, the circuit courts were abolished and the U.S. District Courts started serving as trial courts of general federal jurisdiction in each of the districts. These courts are considered an Article III court―they get their power from Article III of the Constitution. As the Federal trial courts they can, and do, hear both civil and criminal cases. The court rulings can be appealed to the Intermediate Courts of Appeals.

Records of District Courts of the United States

This set of records is of great value to genealogists and historians, but seldom used. The records are not easily accessible because, in the majority of cases, the records have not been indexed—fortunately volunteers at the National Archives at Fort Worth (formerly Southwest Region) have indexed many of the criminal case files from Fort Smith, Arkansas.[1]

The District Courts records include criminal, civil, admiralty, and bankruptcy dockets and case files; indexes; naturalization; pardons and paroles; extradition; persons apprehended by the U.S. Secret Service; bankruptcy; and courts-martial, to name but a few.

This record group is voluminous consisting of over three hundred thirty-eight million (338,000,000) cubic feet of bound volumes, loose papers, microfiche, microfilm, still pictures, motion pictures, posters, and artifacts. The records are in the custody of the various National Archives regional facilities and date from 1789 to the mid-1950s, depending, of course, upon when a court was established.

The types of documents created in the U.S. District Courts were no different than those used by other judicial systems in the state, county, and municipal governments—dockets, case files, record books, minute books, etc.

Below is an image taken from a minute book in the U.S. Southern District Court (Savannah, Georgia).[2]

Naturalization of William O’Brien

This brief abstract of one of the court events on 11 June 1844, indicates that William O’Brien, a subject of the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, petitioned the court and was duly admitted as a citizen of the United States. No other record of this event has been located.

Records Related to Federal District Courts

The list which appears below contains some of the federal record groups which will contain documents related to the records of the District Courts of the United States (RG 21). The list also enumerates appropriate NARA publications such as preliminary inventories and special lists.

RG 21

District Courts of the United States Preliminary Inventory #116: Records of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (1959). Selected List #31: List of Pre-1840 Federal District and Circuit Court Records, compiled By R. Michael McReynolds (1972).
RG 60
General Records of the Department of Justice
RG 85
Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service
RG 116
Records of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts
RG 118
Records of U.S. Attorneys
RG 123
U.S. Court of Claims Preliminary Inventory #58:Records of the United States Court of Claims, compiled by Gaiselle Kerner (1953).
RG 172
Records of the U.S. Commerce Court
RG 204
Records of the Office of the Pardon Attorney Preliminary Inventory #87: Records of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, compiled by Gaiselle Kerner (1955).
RG 205
Court of Claims Section (Justice) Preliminary Inventory #47:Records of the Court of Claims Section of the Department of Justice, compiled by Gaiselle Kerner and Ira M. Kellog, Jr. (1952).
RG 206
Records of the Solicitor of the Treasury Preliminary Inventory #171: Records of the Solicitor of the Treasury, compiled by George S. Ulibarri (1968).
RG 267
Supreme Court of the United States Special List #21: Index to the Manuscript and Revised Printed Opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States in the National Archives, 1808-73, compiled By Marion M. Johnson (1965).
RG 276
Records of the U.S. Courts of Appeals
RG 308
Records of the U.S. Tax Court
RG 527
Records of U.S. Marshals

U.S. Bankruptcy Courts

Bankruptcy occurs when companies or individuals cannot pay their debts. Bankruptcy laws provide protection for both debtors and the creditors (those they owe money to). The Bankruptcy Courts are established by Congress, are attached to the District Courts and exercise the bankruptcy jurisdiction established by federal statute. Although the Constitution grants Congress authority to establish bankruptcy laws, the first legislation governing bankruptcy procedures was in 1800 and was short-lived. Two other statutes regarding bankruptcy were enacted in the nineteenth century—they, too, were short-lived.

  • In an act of 1800 (2 Stat. 19, repealed in 1803), Congress authorized judges of the district courts to appoint commissioners who would oversee the discharge of debts in each bankruptcy case.
  • In an 1841 act (5 Stat. 440, repealed in 1843), Congress granted the district courts “jurisdiction in all matters and proceedings in bankruptcy” and charged the courts with formulating rules for bankruptcy proceedings.
  • In the act (14 Stat. 517) that governed federal bankruptcy from 1867 to 1878, Congress for the first time referred to the district courts as “constituted courts of bankruptcy,” with original jurisdiction in all bankruptcy matters. During this time the district courts were to be open at all times for bankruptcy business, and the district judges were authorized to appoint registers to assist in the administration of such cases.
  • The 1898 bankruptcy act (30 Stat. 544), which was in effect for eighty years, again designated the U.S. district courts to serve as courts of bankruptcy. The act established the position of referee: referees were appointed by district judges to oversee the administration of bankruptcy cases and to exercise certain judicial responsibilities referred by the district court. Subsequent acts expanded the referees’ judicial powers.
  • The Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978 (92 Stat. 2657) conferred original bankruptcy jurisdiction on the district courts and established a bankruptcy court in each judicial district to exercise bankruptcy jurisdiction.

U.S. Court of International Trade

Like the U. S. District Courts, these courts are considered an Article III court―they get their power from Article III of the Constitution. These courts are also not “courts of general jurisdiction”―they hear only special types of cases, those that involve international trade. Appeals can be taken to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, then to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As part of the Court’s mission statement states, they are “...providing cost-effective, consistent, fair, and timely service to those affected by the judicial process; providing independent, consistent, fair, and impartial interpretation application of the customs and international trade laws...”[3]

But before they got to this point, and being an Article III court, they had many ups-and-downs. “The first case tried before the first judge appointed to the first court organized under the Constitution of the United States involved a dispute arising from an importation into the new nation.”[4] As you can see by this statement, international trade has been a concern with the judicial system from the very beginning. It wasn’t until 1890, however, that a Board for General Appraisers was established by Congress to review decisions made by the U.S. Customs Officials. Even then, the office was under the administration of the Treasury Department.

In 1926, the United States Customs Court was established under Article I of the Constitution. It wasn’t until 1956 that Congress established the court under Article III of the Constitution. During all this time the court basically functioned as it had under the Board of General Appraisers.

The Customs Courts Act of 1980 is the most recent act affecting the international trade courts. This law provided two major points:

  • an expanded subject matter jurisdiction―they could now “decide any civil action against the United States, its officers, or its agencies arising out of any law pertaining to international trade.”[5]
  • and it had the same powers in law and equity as all other Article III courts.

The court is made up of nine judges, appointed for life by the President with the consent of the Senate, with their offices and courts located in New York City, New York. However, they can hear court cases anywhere within the United States and in foreign countries. Usually one judge presides over a case; however, depending on the case, the chief judge may assign a three-judge panel.

Suggested reading (see the Websites section for the applicable URL):

  • U.S. Court of International Trade - About the Court

=== Records of the U.S. Court of International Trade (RG 321) === The National Archives has a microfiche edition of preliminary inventories and records in related Record Groups 287 (Publications of the U.S. Government), 21 (Records of District Courts of the United States), and 36 (records of the U.S. Customs Service).

Textual records are available in the National Archives at New York City, NY spanning from about 1890 to 1977. Some of these records may be restricted and require a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Among the records is a card index to protest cases, 1930-1950; decisions of the court in protest cases, 1926-1976; etc.

U.S. Court of Federal Claims

This court was created in 1982 from the Court of Claims by the Federal Courts Improvement Act and is an Article I court. “The Court of Federal Claims is authorized to hear primarily money claims founded upon the Constitution, federal statutes, executive regulations, or contracts, express or implied-in-fact, with the United States.”[6] The court mainly hears claims for money damages in excess of $10,000 against the United States. It also hears claims for the rights of military personnel, tax fund suits, environmental issues, etc.

  1. The index to the criminal case files from Fort Smith, arkansas, are online at ($) and are described on the National Archives website - ARC.
  2. U.S. "Southern District Court (Savannah, Georgia) Minute Book, 1843-1852: 25; Record Group 21; National Archives-Southeast Region, 1557 St. Joseph Ave., East Point, Georgia.
  3. United States Court of International Trade, "About The Court." ( : accessed 30 Apr 2012).
  4. United States Court of International Trade, "About The Court." ( : accessed 30 Apr 2012).
  5. United States Court of International Trade, "About The Court." ( : accessed 30 Apr 2012).
  6. U.S. Court of Federal Claims. "About the Court." ( : accessed 1 May 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 

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.