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

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Understanding Law in the U.S.

Even among highly educated members of our society, there is little understanding of the basics of our legal system outside of the practitioners. Over the years as I prepared for trial after trial in our courts, I was always amazed at the amount of misinformation my clients seemed to have about the process. It is my experience now, after years doing genealogical research, that the genealogical community is no different than the general public in their degree of lack of understanding of judicial, legislative and executive processes. The results are that few researchers use the vast amount of genealogical information available from our legal system.

Of course there are always exceptions, but over the last year, for example, I cannot remember one instance of a researcher asking a question about anything associated with the legal process. The lone exception is in the narrow area of wills and probate. But the amount of paper generated by our legal/legislative/executive system is immense and much of the information can be helpful in researching your family lines. That is the good news. The bad news is that most of the valuable information is locked away in law libraries, government record repositories and huge online legal databases.

So where does our law come from? As I have referred to above, our government is roughly divided into three major subdivisions. Our judicial system whose practitioners include judges, lawyers and all of the myriad of people who work with and for the courts and the law offices. Our court system is complex, with judges and courts at all levels from the U.S. Supreme Court down to the smallest justice or small claims courts. Lawyers are divided into two broad categories; those that work for the government and those that work for the private sector. Lawyers are further divided into other broad categories by the type of cases they work on, either cases involving the state, usually criminal cases or cases involving private parties, usually called civil cases. This discussion of the divisions of the law could go on and on into a book of thousands of pages. This is part of the problem, the law, even in its most basic form is tremendously complicated. For example, while I was in law school, we estimated that we were required to read in excess of 20,000 pages of law every semester and that was if you just wanted to keep up, not actually learn anything. I know people who haven't read five books in their entire life.

Another of our legal system comes from the laws (statutes) passed by our various legislatures. You cannot begin to imagine all of the information generated by the various legislative (law making) bodies in our country, beginning with city councils all the way up to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Just one tiny example, much of the genealogical data from the New England States is found in town council records of different types.

The third big division of our legal system is the executive branch. Here we find most of the people who work for the federal, state and local governments. We also find codes of regulations, rules, and procedures that govern how we live in the U.S. Along with these rules and procedures, these agencies gather a great deal of information, some of which is valuable to genealogists, if they know it exists and how to find it. The amount of information all of the levels of the executive branch collectively generate, from the street sweepers and sanitation workers to the President of the U.S. is overwhelmingly monumental. Although the National Archives only preserves from 1% to 3% of all of the federal records, its collections are enormous.  Think of all the local records from sales tax returns to parking tickets and then think how many jurisdictions there are in the U.S. creating records.

When was the last time you looked and the records of the National Forest Service? Have you ever searched congressional records? When was the last time you looked in the free Archival Research Catalog?  Have you ever use or for genealogical research? Can you imagine how valuable these resources are? Notwithstanding the fact that they are ridiculously expensive?

This is the start of a series where I will highlight some of the more valuable and almost never used types of records that are generated by our government's legal system.

1 comment:

  1. I'm really looking forward to reading all of your posts on this topic. As an attorney myself, I'm very interested to see what records you think are useful, but still practical and not cost prohibitive.