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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

NARA: Federal Court Records - 2

An overview of records located at NARA San Bruno - Part 2

By Martha Wallace

1)     Original Jurisdiction of the Courts – what kinds of cases did they hear?

a)  Original Jurisdiction of Circuit Court
Federal circuit courts were established to serve as trial courts for federal criminal cases, patent & copyright cases, revenue causes, suits between citizens of different states, between citizens and aliens, and civil suits initiated by the US. They had appellate jurisdiction over large admiralty cases and appeals from the district courts.

b)  Original Jurisdiction of District Courts
District courts were established as trial courts for issues arising in the district involving admiralty and maritime cases, minor civil and criminal cases, and cases at common law. A clerk, a district attorney, and a marshal were appointed to assist the judge.

2)     What you will find in the files?

a)   Soot – In a time when the best indoor lighting was provided by gaslights, the soot from the burning gas covered everything. You will find it in the nooks, crannies and folds of the documents. Wash your hands often! Handwritten documents – the handwriting of the clerks, the defendants, the lawyers, and the judge is a delight to read – or decipher! If you can’t figure something out, look at other documents in the file to find the same letters, words, or names, and hope that will help you make a determination.  

b)  Case files containing bonds, information, libel of information, complaints, costs (of clerks, witnesses, informants, marshals, more), notice of trial, affidavits, petitions, orders, claims, monitions, reports of appraisers, answers of claimants/defendants, praecipe, dismissal, subpoenas, venire, demurrers, customs officers, tax collectors (Collector of Internal Revenue), informants, decrees, venditioni exponas, complaints, stipulations, notes of testimony (written by Judge Ogden Hoffman), condemnation & forfeitures, sureties, duties (See for more).

c)   Docket book – This large book has entries for each case showing the dates that actions were taken, a summary of proceedings, including a brief abstract of motions and orders, a record of the fees collected, and a statement of the disposition of the case. This can be cross-checked with the case files to learn more about the chronology of the case.

d)   What’s in the index/spread sheet/database columns 

  • Box number – the files are stored in numbered acid-free document boxes.

  • Docket Book – the number of the docket book; the page in the docket book if available.

  • Case # - the cases were numbered sequentially.

  • Plaintiffs – who filed the suit, usually the United States.

  • Defendants – who or what was being taken to court – in many cases it’s a list of items confiscated by Internal Revenue or Customs.

  • Witnesses and other parties – names mentioned in the case files such as witnesses, claimants, bondsmen, investigators.

  • Date of Offense

  • Date Filed

  • Location – cities and counties in northern California, with occasional southern California and other west coast locations.

  • Subject – Type of case (information, libel, complaint) and nature of the offense.

  • Attorneys – the US District Attorney and defendant’s attorney (if noted).

  • Disposition – who won – or was the case dismissed?

  • 3)   What you will not find

    a)  Transcripts – Word for word transcripts were not a part of court documents at this time. The best document to learn the reason for the case is the complaint/information of the original filing. If there are judge’s notes or notes of testimony, you will learn a little more. If the case was reported in the newspapers, you will find more specific details there.

    b)  Not found – In some instances the document file was not found in the box, but there is an entry in the docket book. The information entered in the database is what could be gleaned from the docket entries.

    4)   How to request the files   If you find that an ancestor was involved in one of the cases, contact NARA to visit and see the whole file.  NARA Contact Page

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