Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Using depositions, court transcripts and legal files for genealogy

One area of genealogical research that I seldom hear mentioned is the use of depositions, court transcripts and legal files for research. Many researchers know the value of deeds, wills and other legal documents, but may neglect to search for litigation files for the same parties. As a side note, in Maricopa County, Arizona alone, approximately 50,000 cases are filed each year. In many of those cases, the parties are involved in discovery concerning the facts of the case. In some, the parties actually go to a trial, either before a Judge (to the Court) or to a jury. As long as there have been courts and judges, people have been filing lawsuits and the courts have been preserving the records of these cases. The records of the courts go back for hundreds of years in America and even back to England and European courts.

Most lawsuits involve some kind of discovery. The discovery phase of a lawsuit involves the parties is using formal or informal methods of determining what the facts may be before a trial. It is very likely that anyone's ancestors were involved with the courts at some point in their life and it is also possible that a record of the court proceedings is still in existence. Even if your ancestor was not a direct participant in the lawsuit, they may have been a witness and given testimony in court or at a deposition. The witness or party may have also left some kind of affidavit or statement about the case. In some jurisdictions, court records may have made it online, but there may also be large numbers of records that are stored in court archives around the country, waiting to be examined.

Some of the common discovery documents that may exist include the following:
  • Depositions -- Depositions are question and answer sessions where one of the attorneys asks a potential witness or party questions about the case. However, my experience in depositions is that attorneys may also ask a lot of background questions about the parties or witnesses including schooling and employment that have nothing to do with the lawsuit. The testimony of the witness is usually recorded in some form by a court reporter for later possible use at a trial. In present practice, few of the depositions taken find their way into the court files, but it doesn't hurt to look.
  • Affidavit or Statement -- Even if there is no record of a deposition, it is possible that your ancestor made an affidavit (a statement made under oath) or some other statement about the case. It is my experience that often these documents contain a lot of extraneous information to the lawsuit, but may help fill in details about the ancestor not available in any other place. Affidavits and statements, unlike depositions, often make their way into the court files.
  • Interrogatories -- These are a set of formal questions asked of witnesses or more frequently, the parties to the lawsuit. They are not usually as useful to a genealogist as a deposition, but they may contain valuable information especially if the lawsuit involved several family members or divorce or property law claims.
  • Requests for Admission -- These documents may appear, but are probably less useful than the other types of discovery to a genealogist because they are very specific to the litigation's legal issues and factual disputes.
There may be other types of documentary evidence provided to the Court, such as the exhibits used at trial. In our more modern court systems, it is unlikely that the court will keep any of the exhibits from a trial, but there may still be exhibits in the court documents, such as exhibits attached to other types of pleadings.


  1. Thank you James.One of the most interesting reocrds I found at a court house involve the death of my ancestor. It involvd his daughter who married my GG Gandfather and she believed that the land he had was hers. This case ran from 1843 to the mid 1850's and from this I found her divorce record. I copied over 90 pages of the records.
    However much of the proceedings were sealed by the court. They had a nine year old son my Great Grand father who wass nine at the time.
    Would this be why the records were sealed. Would be so good as to comment on sealed records during court proceedings?

  2. One of my favorite genealogists, Diane Rapaport, is a former lawyer and she uses court records in her articles (see the "New England Ancestors" at NEHGS) and books. I just finished reading her book "New England Court Records: A Research Guide for Genealogists and Historians" and previously I enjoyed "Naked Quaker: True Crimes and Controversies fromt he Courts of Colonial New England". I know you have a law background, and I'm surprised you haven't read her articles or heard her speak. She is quite popular in New England.

  3. I too work in Maricopa County in Arizona, but there are some things to remember: due to paper reduction efforts 15-20 years ago, Arizona courts no longer require parties to file with the court discovery documents such as interrogatories and requests for admissions, nor do court reporters have to file deposition transcripts. However, if you happen to find records filed before that, they are a gold mine of information!

    Dockets for the later cases are online, but access to these records still requires you to take a trip to the Clerk of the Court.

    Thanks for the article, though - good reminder to check these resources!

  4. Thanks for sharing such an informative post.