Federal Court Research Useless to Genealogists? We Report, You Decide

Last week we reported about PACER, the federal courts’ Public Access to Court Electronic Records system.  We demonstrated how it works, and suggested that it may have some genealogical research value.  Reader Martin has some issues with that post.  In the comments Martin says:

How many genealogical brick walls have been broken down via federal court cases?  Not many–possibly none.  Federal law is completely searchable in appellate and supreme court cases, but those are just matters of law.  District court case opinions (about only 15% are published and maybe as much as 30% are online) are also just matters of law.  Even when you can use a database such as Pacer (and you don’t mention the date restrictions–you just say “recent”), not all facts may be in those documents and it is the facts a genealogist would need.

Stick with local and state court cases–that’s where you find genealogical gems.  And all those for the time period before 1960 are not online.  {with rare exceptions such as the Salem Witch Trials}.  Go to an Archives!!!!

Always ready for a great debate, in a most civil manner, of course, we respond:

1.  How many genealogical brick walls have been broken down via federal court cases? Martin says: “Not many–possibly none.” I have three responses to that.  First, I don’t know that anyone knows how many genealogical brick walls have been broken down via federal court cases.  I know at least one in my own research.  Second, brick walls are not broken down by any one single piece of evidence.  A federal court case that one finds on PACER may well contribute, like every other piece of evidence, to chipping at the wall to one degree or another.  Third, the point of any particular resource such as PACER or any archival matter, is not solely to break down brick walls.  It’s to add richness and texture to one’s research; it’s to ferret out the stories; it’s to make a complete portrait of an ancestor or an ancestral family.  Without those aspects, one is merely collecting names and dates.  So for example, I learned that my grand uncle Elias Bowie, as a young man, was tried and convicted in the US District Court for the District of Arizona for selling liquor to an Indian on Christmas Eve 1938. This put a little different shade on the family portrait of Elias as an entrepreneur (which clearly he was later in life).  It also told me that he was in Arizona in 1938, which came as a surprise to me.  I had long believed that he had worked in Louisiana during the 1930s, and then went into the Army in the 1940s.  So another aspect of his life was revealed to me.  Of course that raised more questions too.  What was he doing in Arizona?  Why was he in Arizona?  When did he get there and when did he leave?  And one can think of many other questions that would arise.

2.  Federal law is completely searchable in appellate and supreme court cases, but those are just matters of law. I have several responses to that.  First, it’s true that federal law is just about completely searchable in appellate and supreme court cases.  Opinions of the appellate courts (including the Supreme Court) are available in a number of places online, including PACER.  And some of these places may be easier to search than PACER, though few at the minimal cost of PACER (there are a few online places that are free).  But these are not merely “matters of law.”  Appellate cases often contain a rendition of the facts found by the trial court.  Often it is easier to find the basic facts from an appellate opinion than it is to find any published material from the trial court.  So it’s not correct to say that these are “just matters of law.”  Second, even if they are just “matters of law,” appellate cases set precedents.  Who wouldn’t want to know if their ancestor had been involved with the setting of some great precedent?  Wouldn’t that be a grand genealogical discovery!  Again, it goes to the story, and tells us about the people behind the names and birth dates.

3.  District court case opinions… are also just matters of law. This is plainly incorrect.  The trial court is where the factual record is developed.  The trial court is where witnesses are heard, exhibits are presented, and all manner of evidence may be offered and either admitted or rejected.

4.  Even when you can use a database such as PACER… not all facts may be in those documents, and it is the facts  a genealogist needs. Indeed, the great strength of PACER is that one may find hard copies of documents online, which is something that can’t be done in many other legal databases.  And, Martin is correct that not all the facts may be found in those documents, but not all the facts are going to be found in any single document or set of documents.  The documents on PACER provide facts that would be of genealogical interest.  For example, PACER records provide the obvious fact that the person was involved in a court action, but may also provide the person’s name, address, and other vital information.

5.  “… you don’t mention the date restrictions–you just say “recent” …” I beg to differ here.  In the original piece, I use the phrase “relatively recent” and qualify that by saying “especially those from the 1990s.” I also say that most courts electronic records go back a very limited period of time, most commonly to the 1980s.  But I also say that there are courts whose records go back as far as the 1930s, and I describe how to check the date limitation on any particular court.

6. Stick with local and state court cases–that’s where you find genealogical gems. I agree that one is more likely to find “genealogical gems” [doesn’t Lisa Louise Cooke own that phrase?] in state court cases.  And I try to indicate that in the first piece by stating that federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction–there are no divorce cases, very few accident cases, no juvenile cases.  But I wouldn’t say “stick” with local and state court cases, to the exclusion of federal court research; that would be to overlook a huge body of potential evidence, limited in scope though it may be.  Additionally, by sticking to state and local cases, you would overlook bankruptcy cases, which are wholly federal, and can be packed with significant family history information.

7.  Finally, Martin says, “Go to an Archives!!!” I absolutely agree with this: go to an archives, go to your local library, go to your County Clerk’s office, go to the local courthouse.  It’s not all online, but don’t overlook a potentially good resource like PACER, just because it might not have everything you need.


2 Responses to “Federal Court Research Useless to Genealogists? We Report, You Decide”

  • Raichel says:

    By the way, dockets from Federal Dockets can be obtained freely from http://FreeCourtDockets.com as long as you know the court name and case number. No Pacer account is needed The site is supported by ad-revenue and site’s data is crawled by all major search engines.

  • Let me start by saying that on average, I use the PACER system weekly for my work as a paralegal. At 8 cents per page, the price for viewing/printing/downloading documents is quite reasonable (and they bill monthly).

    I agree wholeheartedly that PACER should not be overlooked as a source of information. I also agree that local and state court files are also a good source.

    One thing to note here, however, is that a lot of courts, specifically municipal and small-claims courts, are not courts of record (meaning there is no transcript of the proceedings), and you can only see the actual pleadings or court forms (if they still exist). County and state courts are courts of record, but most times the parties have to hire their own court reporter in order to have a transcript, so there again – maybe there is, maybe there isn’t.

    Also – “federal law” is not completely searchable. WestLaw and LexisNexis have databases, sure. They don’t work if the case isn’t reported. Even if you could afford to have either of those services (very expensive), it is not easier than searching via PACER.

    It may not be until the case reaches an appellate level that the information is even out there. It’s much easier to find a local, county, or state court case if you know where the appeal originated.

    Any piece of information, no matter how small, is helpful … even if it’s just to prove your ancestor was there.

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