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

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Understanding the Law in the U.S. -- More about finding records

I don't think most people, even genealogists, comprehend the tremendous number of documents produced by the various branches, agencies and departments of our vast government. To get an idea of what I am talking about, you can start with the Agencies Appearing in the Code ofFederal Regulations which has about 9 pages of agencies listed in fairly small type. Granted not all or even most of these agencies might have genealogically significant documents, but the point is that many of them do record events, agreements or incidents that contain historical and family information. 

Here is another example, this time on the state level, the state of Washington has preserved 103,486,258 records, 34,100,255 of which are searchable online. OK, so where are these records? The key word here is "archive." Every state in the U.S. has a state archive. The U.S. has the National Archives and Records Administration. 

But let's start with just one branch of the government, the judicial branch. Generally speaking, every jurisdictional level of the U.S. has its own court level, from municipalities to the U.S. Supreme Court. You can expect to find a court for every jurisdiction, either at the town/city level or at least on a county basis. Just picking a jurisdiction at random, say, Topeka, Kansas. If I go to the Family History Library Catalog and do a place search on Kansas, I find Kansas County Records, by Denis Berckefeldt containing a list by county of court, probate, property, vital and other public records. Topeka is in Shawnee County and a further search in the FHL Catalog for that county has very few court records, except for probate records. 

Probate is important to genealogists, but it is only a very small part of the overall court system and the records made by the court. So as a genealogist, you might get the impression that all you need to know about the courts is probate. Not so. You might also get the impression that because there aren't that many court records in the Family History Library or other genealogical repositories that the records are not available. Not so.

What else might be available? You might want to look at the Kansas Judicial Branch. Bear in mind, that I am using Kansas as an example, you can find similar information for each jurisdiction in the U.S. The judicial system of the U.S. revolves around the courts. There are basically two levels of courts in the U.S.; Courts of Record and Courts not of Record. Judges in Courts of Record write opinions concerning the cases they decide. The Courts not of Record does not mean they don't keep records, it means that the judges are not required to write about their decisions. The lower courts in U.S. jurisdictions, such as municipal courts, county courts and lower state courts, issue rulings and judgments but do not write opinions (except in some unusual cases). The Courts of Record are usually called appellate courts or supreme courts of the various states. Courts not of Record are also referred to as trial courts. On the Kansas Judicial Branch website, there is a list of each of the counties and the county courts. Sometimes if you want to find the records, you might just have to get on the telephone and call the court.

At every level of every court in every jurisdiction there has been some kind of paper filed at each step in every piece of litigation. What are the chances that your ancestors were involved in some kind of judicial action? Extremely good. The records, if they have not been digitized, are usually associated with the court. Many courts maintain records back to the time they were first organized. It is true that records have been lost due to fires, floods and destruction, but the number of surviving records is overwhelmingly large. 

I have many single legal cases that have filled truck loads of banker's boxes. I have one legal case that has now gone on for 14 years. As I continue writing about judicial cases, I will explain how a case progresses and what kind of paper might be generated at each stage of the litigation. Which of all these documents might contain genealogical information? Let me give one example in advance.

One possible event that can occur during litigation is the taking of sworn testimony out of court before a judicial officer (not a judge). This testimony can take the form of affidavits and depositions. Affidavits are usually written documents, but depositions may be in the form of oral testimony transcribed by a court reporter. Some attorneys in taking this testimony, review details from the entire life history of the deponent (the person giving the testimony). Do you know if any of your ancestors ever gave a deposition or an affidavit? Would you know where to look to find out? Keep tuned.

1 comment:

  1. Were there follow-up postings for this topic, as implied? If so, what are the dates? I seem to be having trouble navigating the blog site to discover the rest of this topics' discussion.