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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 ($).
The limitations of this article will not allow for us to spend time using the published records described below. However, we, as researchers, should be aware that they exist and where we might locate the published volumes.
Case Reporters, arranged in chronological order by case, are summaries of some of the cases that appeared before various appellate courts. The reporters consist of the published decisions of the appellate judges and provide the disposition of the case as well as the reasoning through which the court came to that particular decision. The Reports are useful in assisting us in locating some trial court records.
Case reporters have been published for individual states, for regions, for federal cases, and for more specialized areas of law, such as bankruptcy. Today, however, many state reporters have ceased publication, giving way to a system of regional reporters. Regional reporters cover several states in a geographic area. Generally each case reporter will have an “index.” In lieu of an index at the back of the book, we will find a Table of Cases in the front of the book. Many of the earlier tables named only the first plaintiff and first or no defendant of each case. Modern Table of Cases will list all plaintiffs and defendants in alphabetical order. Other participants of a trial such as witness, etc., will not be listed in the table or in any way be indexed.
The following illustrates a sample page from Shepard’s Georgia Case Names Citator. The case names and citations appear in the:
- Southeastern Reporter (Georgia Cases)
- Southeastern Reporter, Second Series (Georgia Cases)
- Georgia Reports
- Georgia Appeals Reports
- T.U.P. Charlton
- R.M. Charlton
- Dudley Reports
- Georgia Decisions
Shepard’s Citator is one of several resources which will assist us in locating case files. Front matter in the volumes will explain the order of cases, styling of cases, and abbreviations, so when we photocopy one of the main pages, we need to remember to photocopy the front matter as well.
A sample from Shepard’s Georgia Case Names Citator
Let’s look at a typical entry in Shepard’s Citator.
| Woodward v Stilwell 72 Ga. 215 (1883) |
The style of a case is “plaintiff vs. defendant” and in this case the style is shortened to contain only the surnames: “Woodward v Stilwell” instead of Elizabeth H. Woodward, et al vs. John Stillwell.
The summary of Woodward vs. Stilwell is found in volume 72 of the Georgia Reports on page 215 (1883).
| Woodward, McLendon v 25 Ga. 252 (1858) |
In this instance, the style of the case is McLendon v Woodward (Thomas McLendon and wife and other, plaintiffs in error, vs. N.H. Woodward and others, defendants in error). The summary will be found in Georgia Reports, volume 25, page 252 (1858).
We will find case reporters for any particular state in virtually all law libraries in that state. The law libraries frequently carry regional case reports as well. Major law libraries will have case reporters for all states.
The Layers Co-operative Publishing Company published a list of reporters (official and unofficial)—states, regions, and federal.
If we find our ancestor here, we will want to use this published record as a stepping stone to the appellate case and then to the original case at a lower court.
Digests - Summaries of Cases
The West Publishing Company publishes a comprehensive master index to all the case law in the United States. The series begins with the Century Digest for cases prior to 1897. The multi-volume set is thereafter called the American Digest System. The American Digest System is a series of volumes containing summaries of cases throughout the United States. Every ten years the publishers of the American Digest System issues a decennial index to the cases reported. Because of the size of the decennial index for 1986-1996, the publishers split the index into two five-year periods. Typically there will be one or more volumes of a Digest, titled “Table of Cases,” containing surnames.
On the Federal Level, West publishes the United States Supreme Court Digest which is cumulative from 1790. West also publishes five separate federal digests:
- Federal Digest - through 1939
- Modern Federal Practice Digest - 1940-60
- West’s Federal Practice Digest 2d - 1961-75
- West’s Federal Practice Digest 3d - 1975-mid 1980s
- West’s Federal Practice Digest 4th - mid 1980s-present.
Attorney Benjamin Spratling, III, states, “For the family historian looking for that elusive family name, there is a good chance it may appear here. For those collecting all instances of a family name or trying to locate an ancestor’s home state, this is also a good place to look.”
Using the case reports and digests can be daunting and even frustrating on the first go-round. There is at least one online source which will assist us in being better prepared―the Georgetown Law Library’s Case Law Research Tutorial.
Researchers will also find John Corbin’s Find the Law in the Library: A Guide to Legal Research (Chicago: American Library Association, 1989) a valuable resource―it was prepared for non-lawyers.
- ↑ Shepard's Georgia Case Names Citator, 3rd edition, 2 volumes (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Shepard's/McGraw-Hill,Inc.,1995). Hereinafter cited as Shepard's Citator, Georgia.
- ↑ Shepard's Citator, Georgia, 3442.
- ↑ In-house Electronic Database of Georgia Appellate Court Cases; Georgia Archives, 5800 Jonesboro Road, Morrow, Georgia.
- ↑ Shepard's abbreviation Ga. represents Georgia Reports, which in turn stands for the series of books entitled Reports of Cases In Law and Equity Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of the State of Georgia.
- ↑ A full copy of this report is available on the Woodward-Geiger website.
- ↑ Benjamin B. Spratling, III, J.D., "Legal Research," lecture in Course V: Genealogy as a Profession, June 2003, annual Institute of Genealogical and Historical Research, Birmingham, Alabama.
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 email@example.com
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