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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Note on Court Decisions

There is apparently some confusion about the terms "courts of record" and "courts not of record" and what is meant by recording a decision. I am sorry if my post was unclear. Unfortunately, when you speak "attorney" you are not always understood.

There are two separate and distinct uses of the word "record" in conjunction with court cases. The first use of the word is very general meaning anything recorded by the court during the litigation. The second use of the word, the one I am referring to, is very restrictive and refers only specifically to the decision made by the judge on an appeals case.

There are two general distinctions made between the types of courts and decisions made by the judges. In trial courts, the legal matters are heard by a judge or arbitrator. When the judge or arbitrator makes a decision, that decision applies only to the case before the judge. No other case can use the decision of the judge or arbitrator as a legal precedent, that is as an authority of the law for a similar case. No "record" is made of judge's decision other than the general case file containing the ruling of the court in the form of a Minute Entry or a Judgment. A minute entry is a ruling from the court on a case that is part of the file. A judgment is a formal document signed by the judge making a decision in the case either in favor of the plaintiff or the defendant. The judgement is said to be "enforceable" meaning the winning party can collect on the judgement if that is part of the award. However, the case file, containing all the pleadings could be called a court record, but that is not what is meant by a "court of record."

The confusion comes from the use of the word record to mean a transcription of what goes on in the trial court. You may have a multipage ruling from the trial judge explaining his thought process in deciding the case, but that is not a formal "record of the decision" in the law because it is not binding on any other case or any other parties. 

If the one or more of the parties disagree with the court's ruling, they can usually appeal the judgment or other appealable ruling. The case file containing all of the pleadings filed in the court and the rulings of the judge are sent to the appeals court where the record of the case is reviewed. The parties are asked to explain why they think the court below (the judge) was wrong or right and the parties file appellate briefs, long documents explaining their legal positions. The appeals court then may or may not hear oral argument of the case (in court before the appeals judges) and then the case is decided. The appeals court judges write a formal opinion expressing the reasons for their decision and then either issue a formal decision or a memorandum decision (binding only on the parties). If the parties still disagree, they can appeal to yet another, higher court such as the various state supreme courts or the U.S. Supreme court. The formal written decisions of the various courts of appeal are collected by the National Reporter System.

So, the National Reporter System has only those decisions coming from "Courts of Record" that is, courts that write a formal legally binding precedent setting decision. The record spoken of has nothing to do with the "case record" meaning all the stuff produced in the trial court. If you find a case in the National Reporter System you will have a case number and a court to look to for a full record of the trial and other documents produced in the trial court. I have noted some confusion in the non-legal definitions online that make the issue even further difficult to understand.

This is probably the reason that so few genealogists avail themselves of court records because the cases are so confusing. By the way, they are often very confusing to the lawyers and the judges also. It usually does no good to argue with an attorney, since we are always right even when we are wrong.

From a genealogist's standpoint, the trial record is much more interesting and helpful than the case decisions in the National Reporter System, but finding a case in the National Reporter System indicates that further investigation is important. You should always try to find the original case file if it is still available. There are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of cases reported and it is a valuable resource.

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