Friday, August 16, 2013

Where Is My Court Case?

I don't know much about legal cases. Prior to embarking on my genealogical adventure I thought of the courts as just one big entity: one court fits all, as it were. Thanks to my genealogical research I'm learning that is definitely not the case. Until a few years ago, the only court records I had used were chancery records to find divorce cases, see Husband Schmusband. I had also looked in the probate index a few times (most of my people didn't own enough to bother with a will). Then in 2012 I examined court records in two criminal cases (Murderer Gets Off Easy).

Looking through old newspapers I found a few lawsuits that I was unable to locate in the chancery index for Kalamazoo county. The cases were often mentioned in the court section of the paper so there was no doubt that lawsuits had been filed. But where were they? When I asked some of the staff at the WMU Archives everything became clear. I was looking in the wrong place. There was yet another flavor of court case. Of course I had heard of civil suits, but because they weren't on microfilm I didn't even consider that I should be seeking something that wasn't in plain sight (silly me). In my defense I can only say that I can only spend 2-3 hours a year at the Archives so when I can't find something I quickly make a note of it and dash on to the next item on my list while also coordinating my mom's look-up list.

So for those of you who are as legally naïve as I am, here are some of the different types of courts you may encounter (at least in Kalamazoo county) and generally what kinds of records you can find there.

Criminal Court: Speaks for itself.
Probate Court: Estate files, but also cases for admitting people to the asylum.
Chancery Court: This is primarily divorce cases, but also land disputes and business dissolutions.
Law Court: Civil actions in which people sue each other for other reasons.

You are more likely to find chancery records, and often probate records on microfilm because that is where the greatest demand is. Most people are interested to know why their great-grandparents divorced or who and what was mentioned in a will, but not who sued great-uncle Clyde for breach of contract.

The categories I mentioned above might seem to cover the bases pretty well from a layman's point of view, but when consulting a book on the topic of courthouse research I was confronted with a list of no less than twenty-two “common” types of court records that might be found depending on the time period and jurisdiction. [1] Even with the four types of court records I now know of in Kalamazoo county, looking for a particular record is more complicated than it might initially appear. I browsed through the binder at the WMU Archives containing information on the various county court records in their possession and their descriptions. I discovered Justices' court records, miscellaneous court records, miscellaneous circuit court records, court calendars, circuit court journals, special motion books, minute books, special and common orders for chancery, commissioner records and county court records, among other things. And there seemed to be boxes and boxes for kind of record. Based on this, I anticipate that finding my missing court cases will require some real effort.

Now that I finally know where I need to look it will be another long wait (over a year) before I can try to get my hands on the records. But, I've learned a little and that will only help me in the future when I'm sure I'll be looking for yet another obscure court case. These cases may not have juicy details like some of the divorce files I've read, but you never know what little clue will help to solve a minor mystery or flesh out a long-dead relative.

1. Christine Rose, Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide To Genealogical Treasures (San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2004) 112.

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