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Monday, February 22, 2016

Genealogical Insight: The Federal Court System and How it Works -- Part One

File:United states supreme court building.png
United States Supreme Court building.

Introductory statement about court records

From my personal observations, it takes a new genealogical researcher considerable time before he or she realizes the value of court records. Even if a researcher becomes aware of the valuable genealogical information contained in court records, locating and understanding those records may take additional time and effort. This post begins an unnumbered series with the tag line "genealogical insight." During the next few days and perhaps weeks, I will be focusing on courts and court records of all kinds with an emphasis on how genealogical researchers can find and use the records.

The basic question to ask yourself as you begin your research is "Were my ancestors involved with the courts?" Of course, you may not know the answer to this question, but it is very likely that some of you ancestors had situations that required involvement with legal action and led to records of that action being created and retained by the courts. If you think about it, from issues involving livestock and dog bites to naturalization and bankruptcy, there are many situations where people end up involved in court matters.

I begin this series with the United States Federal Courts. I could start at the top or the bottom of the courts system, but either way, there is a lot of information to cover.  I fully realize that some of the terms I will use as I begin this explanation will be unfamiliar to many of the people who are reading this, but be patient, I will explain all of the concepts and terms I use, I just have to start somewhere. Bear in mind that a typical law book, especially one on federal procedure or some aspect of federal law can run into the hundreds or even over a thousand pages. Fortunately, you do not need a law degree to do genealogical research in court records but it helps a lot if you do.

The Federal Court System and How it Works

Genealogists have reason to enter the world of the United States Federal Court System when they begin to realize that many genealogically valuable records originate in the Federal courts and are discoverable only through access to the court records. The topics most commonly encountered include naturalization records, bankruptcy records, federal land grant disputes, federal criminal records, copyright claims and other types of court actions that are filed in the federal court system.

The operation of courts as they now exists in the United States is primarily derived from the English court system and based on the English Common Law. There are some notable exceptions to the application of the English Common Law such as the states where Community Property Laws affect some of the basic property laws pertaining to the ownership and rights of property between married couples. Community property laws are based on Spanish Civil Law. There are nine Community Property Law states: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. Alaska is an "opt-in" community property law state that give both marital parties the option to make their property community property. However, even the community property law states' court systems are based on English common law. For a more detailed explanation of Community Property Laws see my post on Genealogy's Star entitled, "Why are Vital Records Vital to Genealogists: Part Eight -- Marriage and the laws the govern legality."

An outline of the present federal court system was adopted as part of the United States Constitution in 1789. The federal court system did not replace the pre-existing colonial courts that became the state courts and thus preserved the local state courts alongside local federal courts. The term "federal" as used in this context refers to a system of government comprised of several unified states who maintain independent control of their internal affairs. The state and federal courts are divided according to their jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is the power or authority given by law to a court to hear cases, try cases and rule on legal matters both within a particular geographic area and over specified types of claims. We speak of whether or not a court has the jurisdiction to hear a particular case or controversy. Federal courts are said to have "federal jurisdiction" and state courts have "state jurisdiction." Each court has its particular rules regarding its jurisdiction that determine which types of cases can be filed in that court and which cannot.

An Outline of a Lawsuit

The law in the United States is divided into two major subdivisions: civil law and criminal law. The main and essential difference is that convictions of criminal law can result in incarceration or death, but civil law penalties are restricted to monetary damages. There is a clear difference between the civil law and criminal law and the procedures governing the conduct of civil and criminal cases are dramatically different. All criminal cases are filed by the state. But not all actions filed by the state are necessarily criminal actions. In the United States there is no law allowing a private citizen to file a criminal complaint.

There is also a major division between courts of law and courts of equity. In some states, these differences create actual divisions between the types of courts. In the federal court system, the two different functions of the court are combined in a single court. The judge can make decisions involving either the law or apply the principles of equity, sometimes in the same case. This distinction comes from the same division in the English courts. In an equity case, the court has the latitude to modify the terms of the law according to the best interests of society and the parties to the lawsuit. In a court of law, the judge has no such latitude. One area of the law in the United States that is clearly affected by the concept of equity is family law. The judges in a family law case may make a decision that is fair to the parties as opposed to strictly following the law. I will return to the issues of law and equity when discussion the structure of local state and county courts.

To initiate civil proceedings in any court the parties on the different sides of the claims being made file certain papers with the court. Filing means to give the court a document usually referred to as a pleading.  Depending on the type of case filed and the type of court involved, a lawsuit begins when a claimant/claimants or plaintiff/plaintiffs (people making the complaint) file either a complaint or a petition. The complaint or petition is then served (delivered and handed to) on the opposing party or parties called the respondent/respondents to a petition or defendant/defendants to a complaint. The opposing parties may then file a response to the petition or an answer to the complaint. If this seems confusing and complicated, then you might begin to understand why attorneys must have three years of law school and pass a long examination to practice law.

Here is a summary of the action so far:
  1. Complaint/Petition filed with court.
  2. Complaint/Petition served on opposing parties.
  3. Opposing parties file and serve an answer/response.
Now things get really complicated. The range of possible actions that can be taken when a case is "at issue" or filed and served comprise what is known as the Rules of Civil Procedure. In my last years practicing law, the books containing the different courts' procedural rules, with all the commentary statements, comprised a number of books of about 1000 pages in all. At one point, during my law school career, I was hired to do a study of the pleadings (legal documents) filed in the Maricopa County Superior Court, the general trial court in Arizona. The types of pleadings that can be filed in any court and their timing is determined by the rules of procedure. I went to the court every day after it closed and tallied the pleadings by type on paper forms. Today, all of those pleading would be filed electronically, but back then we had huge stacks of paper to process. Even though I was moderately acquainted with some of the court procedures by the time I started this job, I was entirely overwhelmed by the number of different types of documents or pleadings that could be filed with the court. I was particularly affected by the disposition (decisions) in the cases. But that is another story.

Now, this is a very good point for genealogists. Because of the breadth and complexity of the possible types of legal actions in court, there is an almost inexhaustible supply of information about the litigants (those people involved in a lawsuit). Court cases may be organized by the date filed, the names of the litigants or parties to the action, or even an arbitrarily assigned case number. In my experience, the most common way of organizing court cases was by an accession number, that is, a number assigned chronologically at the time the case was filed. For example the first case filed in 2016 would be numbered 2016-1 or some variation of that system. In Arizona, the cases also had a suffix of a series of letters to indicate the court where the case was filed. So a civil court case would be 2016-1 CIV or something like that. As a matter of note, every once in a while, I would get a very low case number by filing my lawsuit on the very first business day of the year.

Criminal cases are commenced by the filing of a criminal complaint (may also be called an information) or an indictment. The defendant in a criminal case is usually referred to as the accused. Criminal procedures are even more complicated than civil procedures. But whether a lawsuit is a civil or criminal case, both follow the same general pattern of a complaint followed by an answer, some sort of discovery by the parties concerning the positions of the litigants and then a resolution by the court of the issues either through a trial or by making some legal ruling as to the sufficiency of the claims. In both civil and criminal cases, if there are facts in dispute then the judge or a jury (depending on the rules concerning the particular case before the court) may decide the facts of the case. The judge always applies the law to the case and makes all decisions as to which law or laws apply to the claims.

The court then issues a judgment in favor of the plaintiff/plaintiffs or the defendant/defendants. If there is a jury trial, the jury usually decides the facts of the case and amount of the award or lack of an award to the prevailing party. In a criminal action the jury decides the guilt or innocence of the accused and then, in some cases may decide the penalty such as whether or not to impose death on accused. If there is no jury, the judge decides the facts of the case, then applies the law to the facts and makes a decision as to a civil award of damages (money judgment) or guilt or innocence in a criminal case. In a criminal case, the sentencing of the accused is handled separately from the trial.

In our world today, you have probably seen a movie or television show depicting a court trial. All I can say is that trials are a lot longer and less interesting that portrayed in movies. Even after thousands of court appearances, I can only remember a very, very few that were ever reported in the news stories of the day except for the mandatory public newspaper announcements and publications that had to be made by law.

As you can probably guess, this series can go on for a long time. Watch for the reference to the Genealogical Insight for further comments and explanations.

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