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

Monday, June 11, 2012

The mechanics of accessing court records

Even avoiding hyperbole, court records are valuable for genealogical research. But at the same time, they are amazingly difficult to understand and access. Even in this day of online digitized images, court records lag far behind other types of records in availability. For example, "Court Records," are not listed as a category in's list of subject headings. Some types of court records are listed, such as probates and criminal prosecutions, but by and large civil and family court records are still locked up in individual courts across the world.

It is important to understand the different types of records that are created in the course of either a civil or criminal lawsuit and where and how the records are kept. Depending on the location and management of the court records, they can vary from impossible to access to freely available online. However, freely available online is the very small exception to the general rule.

Arizona is a good example of both partial accessibility and complete inaccessibility at the same time. All of Arizona has public access to case lookup. So, what does that do for you as a genealogical researcher? As it turns out, not much. This is a copy of the disclaimer:
Please be aware of the following limitations of the case records displayed:
• The information may not be a current, accurate, or complete record of the case.
• The information is subject to change at any time.
• The information is not the official record of the court.
• Not all cases from a participating court may be included.
• The information should not be used as a substitute for a thorough background search of official public records.
In addition, the "public" records only list each individual filing or pleading by title, nothing else. So, let's suppose you find that your ancestor was in a lawsuit in Arizona and you find the case listed in the Public Records. What you get is a long list of pleadings or filings and nothing else. No details. No copies of the documents. Just a list. So where are the original case files? Either on microfilm, sitting in filing cabinets or unavailable. Oh, did I mention that the online access only includes 153 of the 180 courts in Arizona? And to add to the issues of finding court cases, the Arizona Public Access site lists the following as unavailable:
The following case types are excluded from search results: sealed cases, cases involving un-served Orders of Protection, mental health and probate cases, victim and witness data. Juvenile incorrigible/delinquency case information also cannot be viewed on this website; however other types of cases in which juveniles are parties, such as traffic cases, may be displayed. Certain administrative functions carried out by superior court clerk's offices in each county are not included in this website, such as passport application processing and private process server registration.

If I want to actually look at a case file, I have to contact the Clerk of the individual court and find out where the records are kept and the terms of availability. Some of the records might be kept in the Court houses around the State but some are separately housed in storage areas. Significantly, there is very little on the Arizona Judicial Branch website that tells anyone where to examine the case files. For example, if you wanted to see a case file for a case pending before the Arizona Supreme Court, you must go to the Clerk's Office to look at the documents and call before hand to reserve a "viewing room."

In Arizona, most recently, all of the pleadings and documents in court cases filed in Maricopa County are digitized and online. But, you have to have registered with the Court and have a login and password to see the records. In reviewing other courts' procedures in other jurisdictions, I get the impression that most courts have about the same attitude toward mere mortals accessing their records.

If your state or other jurisdiction has an online court docketing system, you may be able to find mention of your ancestor in the court's index of cases. But if you ancestor was a witnesses or a non-participating witness, you may never find them. Is it worth going to individual courts and messing around in piles of old cases? I would only do that if I had some actual indication that the ancestor was involved in litigation or if this were the only avenue left open to me.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very timely post. Just yesterday, working in some Ohio estate records recently uploaded by (ahem), I ran across the word "praecipe" that I have not seen since my own County Court Clerk's Office days - and even knew how to pronounce it.

    I am thoroughly enjoying these Probate Court records, as incomplete and occasionally mis-titled as they are!