Research In Legal And Court Records

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It’s common for genealogical researchers to look at certain old court documents. Among them are:

  • Naturalization Records
  • Guardianship Records
  • Wills

However, there are many other court records that some researchers fail to look at. There is a lot of excellent family history information to be gained from court records. Physical descriptions and names, occupations, residence and more may be listed in the court documents.

When looking for ancestral information in court records, it’s important to remember that they may have participated in a wide variety of court proceedings. They could have been listed in cases of divorce, adoption, personal injury, property disputes, tax issues, contract disputes, licenses and more. So, there is a good chance that the ancestor in question is listed somewhere in court records, either as a plaintiff or defendant or as a witness or juror.

Civil Court Cases:

Civil court cases involve one corporation or individual suing another over a rights violation. Trespassing, property damage and libel are a few examples of topics covered in civil court. Other topics include breach of contract, wrongful death, personal injury and divorce.

Criminal Court Cases:

In a criminal court case, a person is accused of wrongdoing against the state. Murder, treason, arson and theft are examples of topics covered in criminal court. Some criminal court cases are serious felonies, while others may be minor infractions, or misdemeanors.

The Dual Court System:

There has been a dual court system in the United States ever since the Constitution went into effect in 1789. Prior to that, various state courts existed. These stayed into effect after the Constitution was created and enacted. However, when the Constitution went into effect, additional Federal courts were created to handle cases involving Federal statutory laws, violation of the Constitution and other serious offenses.

Probate court records of administrations, guardianship and wills can offer a lot of genealogical history. However, as you can see, examining criminal records is also important. They can be a wealth of information.

Local And State Courts:

There are two main levels of courts within each state. Appellate courts are like the last resort within each state. They are generally called supreme courts and they are the highest level of state court. Some states also have intermediate appellate courts. Those courts are used to review lower level court cases, when necessary, but when a higher supreme court is not required.

Trial courts make up the lowest level of courts in each state. They are usually split into two groups. The first is general jurisdiction, which often handles major civil cases, as well as felony criminal cases. The second is special jurisdiction, which handles preliminary felony hearings, misdemeanor cases, traffic violations and small civil cases, as well as estates and wills.

Each court presides over certain types of legal cases and covers a certain designated county or area. The names of those courts vary greatly and some have changed with time. Some of the names include:

  • County Courts
  • Common Pleas Courts
  • Chancery Courts
  • Circuit Courts
  • Supreme Courts
  • Surrogate Courts
  • Superior Courts
  • District Courts
  • Prerogative Courts
  • Hustings Courts
  • Courts Of Ordinary
  • Orphans’ Courts
  • Courts Of Oyer And Terminer
  • General Session Courts
  • Probate Courts
  • Courts Of Quarter Sessions

 

Each state’s courts get their authority from their own state. Therefore, the exact number of courts, names of the courts and other factors vary from one state to the next. Although, in general, all state courts handle civil and criminal cases that involve the braking of state statutes and laws.

Unless the law specifically stipulates that another court should handle a case, every case is presumed to be within the jurisdiction of the general jurisdiction court. There are, however, certain cases that are only tried within limited jurisdiction courts.

The problem for genealogical researchers is that courts have changed names and jurisdictions a lot over the years. However, every state has a supreme court and at least one trial court level. A handful of cases can be transferred from state to Federal courts, as specified by the constitution.

A lot of courts in the United States have been broken up into certain categories, based on their powers and their types of proceedings.

Law Courts:

Law courts are similar to ancient England’s common law courts. They preside over cases in which one of the parties is trying to collect money due to a past injury. They also preside under a few other types of cases, based on custom statutes.

Courts Of Chancery Or Equity:

This type of court also originated in England. They began after the Norman Conquest. They would provide resolutions for cases that weren’t properly settled by the common law court system.

Probate Courts:

These types of courts were meant to supervise will creation and estate settlements for the deceased. Probate courts were also used in cases of adoption and guardianship.

There is a distinction between equity courts and courts of law. However, the lines vary greatly from state to state. Among the original U.S. states, most continued using courts of chancery or equity and several newer states followed their lead. However, equity courts are no longer in existence in most states. Now most common law judges are also judges in equity cases. In colonial and revolutionary eras, a lot of local courts did handle both civil and criminal actions.

  • The Federal Court System: The U.S. Constitution gives Federal courts their authority. Congress can also authorize Federal courts to handle certain cases. There are four major divisions of the federal court system.
  • The Supreme Court: The Federal Supreme Court handles any cases in which the state is a party in a case. It also has jurisdiction over certain other cases that begin in other Federal courts.
  • Circuit Courts Of Appeals: These courts have appellate jurisdiction over other Federal courts. That is, unless the appeal must be made to the supreme court.
  • The District Courts: These courts handle many different types of criminal cases and civil cases. They also handle cases in which parties are citizens of different states.
  • The Court Of Claims: These courts handle cases in which claims are made against the U.S. based on statutes or contracts.

Sometimes Federal court jurisdiction is concurrent with state courts and other times it is exclusive. In concurrent instances, some state court cases are removed to the Federal court system for various reasons.