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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Genealogical Insight: Locating State and Local Court Records

File:Pacific Reporter.jpg
By Coolcaesar at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,
There is no question that the huge volume of courts records in the United States is a valuable source of genealogical information. The basic question is how are these records organized and where can they be found. If we start by talking about the highest courts of the state, the state supreme courts, then the records are easily found and generally available. The other court records are less easily located and searched.

Genealogists may pass through several stages in their research. At the most basic level, genealogists are easily frustrated because the records they seek are not immediately available online in an organized website. A good example is the existence of the United States Federal Census Records. Historically, the U.S. Census was entirely paper-based. To examine a copy of the Census records that were preserved, you had to visit the National Archives in Washington, D.C. or consult one of the duplicate paper copies maintained by the states if there was one. Beginning in the 1930s, the federal government began microfilming some of their records. Microfilm copies of the U.S. Census records became available and the Genealogical Society of Utah, for example, obtained a copy of the records then in existence. Most genealogists become aware that the nearly all of the records of the 1890 U.S. Census were lost. The commonly told story is that the records burned in a fire. However, only a small percentage of these records actually burned, most were simply destroyed by the government because of a failure to appropriate funds for their preservation. Whatever the reason, government records, including court records may or may not be readily available.

As genealogists become more sophisticated and experienced, they begin to realize that most records are not easily obtained. Many records still exist only as paper copies in their original repositories. For court records, this means that the original court records are sitting in file cabinets or boxes in the court buildings around the country. Depending on the custodians of any particular records, they may be organized and easily accessible or disorganized and stored in basements and attics. Obviously, there is a general country-wide movement to digitize and preserve all sorts of records. In some states, many of the court records are readily available online. In other states, the availability is determined by the individual counties or courts involved. Any list of available court records would be changing daily.

Any mention of the need to research court records needs to confront the issue of "Burned Counties." This term refers to the propensity of county court houses to be destroyed by fires or other calamities. If you have heard a family tradition that "all of our family records were destroyed in a courthouse fire" you are the victim of a cruel hoax. First of all, there is no way all of the records of a particular family could have been destroyed if a courthouse burned down. In addition, many of the records that were destroyed in those fires have been reconstructed. But there is a reality that some records, principally court records have been lost. To begin investigating if some of your own important records may have been lost, see the Research Wiki article, "Burned Counties Research." You may also wish to consult the website, "Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness."

So, I will start at the highest state court level and move downward explaining where each type of record can be found.

State Supreme Court Records

State supreme courts are "courts of record." This means that the decisions of the judges are recorded and published. Each state in the United States maintains its own supreme court records in a series of books called the state reports. Volumes of the individual state reports are accumulated and for many years have been published by the West Publishing Company. All of these reports have been digitized from the printed copies and are available on two large commercial, subscription websites, and In many cases, access to these websites may be available in a local law library or even some larger public libraries. These are extremely expensive websites and some law firms also have subscriptions but severely limit use to non-lawyers. You might also try a library associated with a law school. For example, the Brigham Young University, J. Reuben Clark Law School, Howard W. Hunter Law Library allows patron access to on a limited basis. What I have found is that some of the state supreme court cases can be found online with free access.

State Courts of Appeals

All of the states have an intermediary appeals court, usually referred to as a court of appeals. These courts also record the decisions and thought processes of the judges and are courts of record. The accumulated records of these courts from around the United States is preserved in the Court Reporter System. The availability of these records online follows exactly the same pattern as the supreme court records with complete sets of these records on or and some other websites with some of the decisions. Before these cases were digitized, the books were kept by state and local law libraries. The image at the beginning of this article, shows a few of the Pacific Reporter System books. Each of the states are organized into a geographic section and the records are published for each state in that section's books. These old law books no longer have any interest or value to attorneys or anyone else and it is common to see them used in model homes, restaurants and other places to give an atmosphere of educated scholarship. Of course, if you are a lawyer you are not impressed.

Trial Court Records

The state trial courts and all of their divisions and specialized courts are not courts of record. The judges do not have to explain why they decide a case one way or another. This does not mean that there are not extensive records of the court cases. But these records are preserved or not preserved depending on the funding and attitude of the individual courts concerning their records. Some of the states and counties have begun digitizing some or all of their records and making them available online. However, if the court has not digitized its records, then the copies of the court records that have survived are likely sitting in boxes or on shelves where they have been stored by the courts. Locating and obtaining access to these records will often be a major challenge.

Justice Courts and County Courts

Small claims made in local justice or limited jurisdiction county courts are problematic. There may well be an archive of the records, but determining its location can be a problem. Often, there will be a current list of cases online, but any records of the disposition of these cases may or may not have survived. You may see a statement such as this one from the Pima County, Arizona Consolidated Justice Court:
Our court records are maintained in accordance with Rules of the Supreme Court of Arizona, Rule 29. Court Records, subsections (A) and (D). Court records may be destroyed in accordance with approved minimum retention and disposition schedules. Court records include any documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristic, such as information maintained in a case management system that may be used to reproduce a document and any other case related data, including a photographic or electronic reproduction or image substituted for the original.
Local and Municipal Court Records

Records from local or municipal (city) courts are ephemeral. As I mentioned in the previous section, these records might have survived or been destroyed according to the various states and counties schedules for retention. It is always a good idea to look even if you think that the records may have been destroyed.

Here are my suggested steps for locating any court records anywhere in the United States or its territories.

Step One
Assume that your ancestors somehow became involved in the courts. It was not as uncommon as you might think that your ancestors had to go to court for some reason or another. Begin my searching for the names, including any variations of the names, of all of your ancestors online. If you wish, include a tag for "court case litigation' or something similar.

Step Two
Check the recorded records in the places where your ancestors lived. Court judgments were and are routinely recorded in the counties where the litigants lived so you will find judgements, giving the name of the case and the court, mingled in with lard and property records in the various county recorders offices around the country.

Step Three
Call the court and ask where their records are stored and how far back records have been kept.

Step Four
Check with libraries, archives and any other repository for the state and county where your ancestors lived. If possible, talk to the conservator, archivist or librarian about finding the records.

Step Five
Never give up. Keep looking.

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