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Court Records

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Special thanks to Rebecca Sharp, Archives Specialist and Rose Buchanan, Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC, for collaborating on this blog post.

 

Article III, Section 1, of the Constitution established and empowered the judicial branch of the Federal Government, including the Supreme Court of the U.S. The Supreme Court's jurisdiction over lower courts was established by authority of the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789 (1 Stat. 73).

 

The National Archives in Washington, DC, provides access to U.S. Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction case files beginning in 1792. Case files can contain the following documents, although not all case files contain all of these documents: petitions for writs of error or certiorari; transcripts of record from lower courts; exhibits; motions; orders; judgments; mandates; opinions (majority, concurring, and/or dissenting); and administrative correspondence. A general overview of Supreme Court records at the National Archives is available online.

 

Case files from 1792-1831 are available online in the National Archives Catalog (originally microfilmed as National Archives Microfilm Publication M214). Records are arranged by the court assigned docketed case file number. To find the case file number, you will first need to check the digitized index in the National Archives Catalog (originally microfilmed as National Archives Microfilm Publication M408). See blog post Locate a Supreme Court Case File Number for guidance about how to interpret the index cards.

 

How to Make a Request

Successful requests for Supreme Court Case Files contain the following information.

Send requests to archives1reference@nara.gov.

 

Helpful Hints

  • NARA can only provide copies of an entire case file. If you are seeking copies of select documents, you will need to conduct on-site research and make your own self-service copies. You are also welcome to hire an independent researcher to perform this work your behalf.
  • The citation from the U.S. Report is not the case file number. (See blog post Locate a Supreme Court Case File Number using Online Resources for more information.)
  • Case file contents can vary greatly.

 

Examples of Records in Case Files from Loving v. Virginia, Case 395 OT 1966

Decision

Telegram to Bernard Cohen Announcing the Verdict

Copy of Appeal (Page 1 of 4)

Special thanks to Rebecca Sharp, Archives Specialist and Rose Buchanan, Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC, for writing this blog post.

 

The National Archives in Washington, DC, provides access to U.S. Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction case files beginning in 1792. To make a successful request for a specific Supreme Court record, you must first determine the case file number and provide the number to our staff. This number is crucial for us to be able to search for and locate the appropriate case file(s). An overview of Supreme Court records at the National Archives is available online.

 

Below is an explanation of three online sources for identifying the case file number.

 

Search Tips

  • If you do not find a case listed in the year that it was decided, check the year before and after the decision.
  • If the case is "Miscellaneous" make sure to include "Miscellaneous" as part of the case file number.
  • If you are researching a case involving a ship, search various terms including: ship, schooner, brig, the name of the ship, the name of the ship’s owner, etc.
  • Search for both the defendant’s and the plaintiff’s names.

 

Index Cards, 1792 – 1909

The Index to Appellate Case Files of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1792-1909 is available digitally through the National Archives Catalog (National Archives Identifier 1537559). To begin searching, click on the “search within this series” button. The cards are arranged alphabetically by party's name.

 

Below is an example of an index card for Plessy v. Ferguson. The file number 15248 is the case file number.

Engrossed Dockets, 1792 – 1995

Three microfilm series of Engrossed Dockets of the U.S. Supreme Court have been digitized and are available through the National Archives Catalog (National Archives Identifier 1524561). Click on the “Search within this series” button. Browse until you find the appropriate year span. If the docket book does not include an index, you will need to search page-by-page and line-by-line until you find the case file number of interest.

 

From 1792 through 1933, the case file numbers are strictly numerical. For example, the case file number for Schneck v. United States is 26484.

From 1934 through 1970, the case file number consists of the docket number and the October Term (O.T.). For example, the case file for Korematsu v. United States is 22 O.T. 1944.

The filing scheme transitions in 1970. A 1970 case file may be either the docket number and October Term or the last two digits of the year followed by a dash and then the docket number. From 1971 through the present, the case file number is the last two digits of the year followed by a dash then the docket number. For example, the case file number for Roe v. Wade is 70-18 (filed in 1970).

 

Reports, 1957 – Present

A citation from the U.S. Reports is insufficient for staff to locate a case file as it only includes the volume number followed by the page number.

 

Beginning ca. 1957, U.S. Reports include the case file number. The case file number will be listed near the top of the first page related to the case. The October Term should be listed at the top of the page (or the top of the opposite page) as well.

 

For example, the U.S. Reports citation for the case Epperson v. Arkansas is 393 U.S. 97. From 1934 through 1970, the case file number consists of the docket number, the October Term (O.T.), and filing year. The court issued case file number for Epperson v. Arkansas is 7 O.T. 1968--this is the number that National Archives staff need to locate the record.

The citation in the U.S. Reports for Roe v. Wade is 410 U.S. 113. Starting partway through 1970 to present, case file numbers consist of the last two digits of the year followed by a dash then the docket number. The case file number for Roe v. Wade is 70-18--this is the number that National Archives staff need to locate the records.

 

U.S. Reports for the years 1792 through 2003 are available online through the Library of Congress. The remaining portions of the 2014 term are available through in a preliminary print version. U.S. Reports for the years 1991 through 2014 part are available through the Supreme Court of the United States. The remaining portions of the 2014 term are also available online in a preliminary print version.

 

Electronic Dockets for Closed Appellate Cases, 1996 - 2006

The Electronic Dockets for Closed Appellate Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court, is available through the National Archives Catalog (National Archives Identifier 4325222). To begin searching, click on the “search within this series” button. The dockets are organized by term year during which the docket was closed. The Supreme Court term year begins on the first Monday of October and lasts until the first Monday in October of the next year. Questions about these records should be emailed to the National Archives Electronic Records staff at cer@nara.gov.

 

Below is an example of the docket for Texas v. Sierra Club, et al. The Court assigned case file number is 96-3.

 

See Request a Supreme Court Case File for how to make a record request.

This is a part three in a three part series.

 

Indexes created by the Federal Courts are valuable research tools to cross-reference a case file number and case type with the involved parties.

 

Digitized indexes for select courts and case files types are available on the National Archives Catalog. Researchers can “flip” through the digital copies and download their findings.

 

See parts one and two for more information about these records, examples, and the research process:

Case File Indexes Created by the Federal Courts: Introduction (Part 1 of 3)

Case File Indexes Created by the Federal Courts: Index Examples (Part 2 of 3)

 

Supreme Court

Index to Case Files, 1792 - 1909

Alphabetical index digitized from Microfilm Publication M408

File Unit Citation: National Archives Identifier 88760458

 

U.S. District Court for the Eastern (St. Louis) Division of the Eastern District of Missouri.

Direct General Index, 1838 - 1923

Index of names grouped by first letter of surname or company

 

 

Listing for Digitized Court Indexes and Dockets from the National Archives at Boston

The National Archives at Boston has digitized several indexes for Federal Courts in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. They maintain and update a list of digitized materials for researchers to explore.

 

U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island

Name Index to Criminal Cases, 1906 - 1991

File unit citation: National Archives Identifier 146290649

This is a part two in a three part series.

 

Federal Court indexes provide an important stepping stone for researching court records. Indexes link the case file number to a party name(s). The information on an index varies by filing type (e.g., civil, criminal, naturalization, bankruptcy), court location, and time period.

 

See Case File Indexes Created by the Federal Courts: Introduction (Part 1 of 3) to learn more about these records and how to search for them in the National Archives Catalog (NAC).

 

Let’s look at a couple of index examples from the Federal District Courts. Indexes can include unexpected research clues and point to where to look next.

 

Example #1: U.S. District Court, Civil Index

Index card for civil case 3449 Angelo Delfino ads USA

(ads - ad sectam (Latin), like v. in cases, except the defendant is listed first)

Index card for civil case H79-549 Anthony Del Grosso, et al v. Johns-Manville Corp., et al

 

These are two examples of civil index cards from the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut (National Archives Identifier 134379567). Del Grosso’s case file number H79-549 includes several covert details: the filing year, 1979; and the location of filing as Hartford designated by the “H” preceding the number.

 

Example #2: U.S. District Court, Criminal Index

 

Index card for Richard J. Mylette

Cases filed in 1930

Index card for My Own Quality Bakery. Inc.

Case filed in 1958

 

These are two examples of criminal case file index cards from the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts (National Archives Identifier 118967991). Mylette had three criminal cases, all filed in sequence: 9418-9420. There were several other cards with the Mylette surname.

 

Example #3: U.S. District Court, Naturalization Index

Although naturalization indexes were maintained by the Federal Courts, the records indexed could be from local, state, or Federal courts. Researchers may need to inquire outside of NARA to locate the declaration of intention and the naturalization petition. The details on naturalization index cards orient researchers where to look next.

 

Front of naturalization card for Fred Hund

Back of naturalization card for Fred Hund

 

This is an example of a naturalization index card from the U.S. District Court for the Omaha Division of the District of Nebraska (National Archives Identifier 148523642) for an individual who did not complete the process in a Federal Court. According to the information on Hund’s index card, the Buffalo County District Court approved his petition for naturalization. Likewise, his declaration of intention was submitted and approved by the Cass County District Court. The naturalization petition and declaration of intention are not available through NARA because county courts are not Federal Courts.

 

Example #4: U.S. District Court, Bankruptcy Act of 1898 Index

Caption: Index card for bankruptcy case 59611 in the matter of A.E. Sardello Co. filed on September, 17, 1936.

 

This is an example of a Bankruptcy Act of 1898 Case File from the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts (National Archives Identifier 120147886). It also includes an individual’s name!

 

Be sure to check out part 3 of this series, featuring index examples: Case File Indexes Created by the Federal Courts: Digitized and Digital Indexes (Part 3 of 3)

This is a part one in a three part series.

 

As Federal Courts oversee and adjudicate cases, they assign each one a case file number. Each court is responsible for assigning case numbers within their jurisdiction; there is no nationwide numbering system.* Federal Courts include: Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, District Courts, Bankruptcy Courts, Circuit Courts, and Territorial Courts.

 

The Courts create indexes to cross-reference a case file number and case type with the involved parties. Some indexes may also contain the date that the case was filed and closed, and fees paid. Indexes consist of part names in a bound volume or an individual entry on an index card. They are arranged by case file type, party names (alphabetical), and/or time period (chronological). The content on index cards vary by court action (e.g., civil, criminal, naturalization, bankruptcy), court location, and time period. The information included on the index can be used to access additional records created by the court -- docket books, record books, and case files.

 

Once the court indexes are 25 years or older, they are accessioned by National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) locations throughout the country as permanent archival records. For a general listing of where court records are stored, visit   https://www.archives.gov/research/court-records.

 

*The Supreme Court converted to the Automated Docket System during the 2002 term year. They created the Automated Docket System to electronically track appellate petitions submitted to the Court.

 

Using the National Archives Catalog to Find Indexes from the District Courts, Circuit Courts, and Territorial Courts

 

Researchers can search for indexes created by the District Court, Circuit Court, and Territorial Court in the National Archives Catalog. Many Federal Court indexes are not digitized or microfilmed.

 

Search for court indexes in National Archives Catalog using a basic formula. All four pieces are needed.

Piece 1: Record Creator

Piece 2: Case Type

Piece 3: Record Type

Piece 4: Geographic Reference

- “District Court”

- “Circuit Court”

- “Territorial Court”

-Admiralty

-Bankruptcy

-Civil

-Criminal

-Equity

-Law

-Naturalization

- Index

-State and/or city of court

(Do not include the county. Omit city if results don’t yield anticipated list.)

Caption: Search box for the National Archives Catalog. Search input: “district court” admiralty index Louisiana

Caption: Search results narrowed using “Refine By: Level of Description, Series”

 

Using “Refine By: Level of Description,” on the left side, then select “series” to narrow the search results. Click on the blue hyperlinked title to learn more, e.g., “Indexes to Judgments in Equity, Law, Admiralty, and Criminal Cases, 1882-1934.”

 

Caption: Description for the series “Indexes to Judgments in Equity, Law, Admiralty, and Criminal Cases, 1882-1934” from the U.S. District Court for the Shreveport Division of the Western District of Louisiana.

 

Each description includes how the records are organized, what is contained in the record, and which office to contact for more information. It generally will not include a detailed listing of names or digital records. Look at the scope and content section and dates to determine if the materials would be useful in your research.

 

Using the National Archives Catalog to Find Indexes from the Court of Appeals

 

Researchers can search for indexes from the Court of Appeals in the National Archives Catalog. Many indexes are described in the Catalog, but not yet available for wider access in a digital format.

 

Search for court indexes in the National Archives Catalog using a basic formula. The Court of Appeals consists of 13 large circuits, each consisting of several states.

 

Piece 1: Record Creator

Piece 2: Circuit of the Appellate Court

Piece 3: Record Type

-”Court of Appeals”

-Numeric designation, e.g., First, Second, etc.

* -Index

*Determine the Circuit of the Court of Appeals from the U.S. Federal Courts Circuit Map. This map is accurate for cases filed after 1982. For cases filed before 1982, several circuits were added and the bounds of each changed. Questions about the U.S. Court of Appeals Circuits can be directed kansascity.archives@nara.gov.

Using “Refine By: Record Group/Collection,” on the left side, then select “Record Group 276” to narrow the search results. Click on the blue hyperlinked title to learn more.

Caption: Search results narrowed using “Refine By: Record Group/Collection”



Use Catalog Descriptions to Make Request

Use the email or telephone number from the description to contact the appropriate NARA office to ask staff to conduct a name search. Requests need to include:

Staff will search for the index for the name and contact you with what they find and advise the next steps in the research process.



Use Archives.gov to learn about how to search Supreme Court records. Researchers can email requests for documents created by the U.S. Supreme Court to archives1reference@nara.gov.


Be sure to check out part 2 of this series, featuring index examples: Case File Indexes Created by the Federal Courts: Index Examples (Part 2 of 3)

NARA logo with Research Services text

Subject Matter Expert (SME) - Civil Rights Blog #1
LGBTQIA+ Equal Protection Records in Federal Courts

Ray Bottorff Jr

 

Federal Courts in the United States have played a pivotal role over the decades on the matter of equal protection rights for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual and/or Ally + (LGBTQIA+) community. The U.S. Courts are responsible for hearing cases that question the applicability and the limits to rights afforded under U.S. law. Specifically, members of the LGBTQIA+ community used the Court to redress issues of equal protection, discrimination, and unfair application of law.

 

There are a number of key Federal Court cases regarding the equal protection rights of the LGBTQIA+ community. Some cases expanded rights, while others curtailed them. One, Incorporated v. Otto K. Olesen, et al. and James Michael McConnell v. Elmer R. Anderson are two cases that represent both outcomes. Portions of their cases are digitized and available in the National Archives Catalog. These two cases are just the tip of the iceberg for the kinds of Federal Court records available from the Records of the Supreme Court (RG 267) , Records of the U.S. Court of Appeals (Record Group 276), and Records of the District Courts of the United States (RG 21), at the National Archives.

 

In the case of Supreme Court records, Transcripts of Oral Arguments before the Court are located at the National Archives building in Washington, DC. Oral recordings are held by the Moving Image and Sound Branch, located at the National Archives at College Park, MD. U.S. Courts of Appeals and U.S. District and Circuit Courts records are found at National Archives locations around the country.

 

Search for digitized case files in the National Archives Catalog by entering the case’s party name(s) and/or name variations. If the search is unsuccessful, determine where the case would have been filed (e.g., U.S. District Court for the Central Division of California or U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit). Using the court location, contact the facility where the records are located for further assistance. Researchers can learn more by visiting the National Archives guide to court records. The National Archives does not have a nationwide master list of case files by name, type, or content.

 

One, Incorporated v. Otto K. Olesen, et al.


In 1953, the Los Angeles chapter of the Mattachine Society began to publish ONE: The Homosexual Magazine, considered the first magazine widely-distributed for the LGBTQIA+ community. Postal authorities in Los Angeles, California, seized the October issues of the magazine citing that it violated Federal obscenity laws. In response, One, Incorporated sued Postmaster Otto K. Olesen in the U.S. District Court for the Central Division of California. One argued that the magazine’s content was in fact lawful and should not be withheld for delivery by the U.S. Post Office. The District Court supported Olesen’s decision about withholding the content that he viewed as lewd. Later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (241 F.2d 772) upheld the lower Court's decision on February, 27, 1957.


On January 13, 1958, the Supreme Court quickly reversed the decision of the Ninth Circuit without any oral arguments based on its earlier decision in the case Roth v. United States, (354 U.S. 476 (1957)) that provided a new test to determine if something was unlawfully obscene. This reversal meant that pro-LGBTQIA+ writing was not per se obscene.

Complaint for Injunction and Declaratory Relief, 09/16/1955, Civil Case File 18764: One, Incorporated v. Otto K. Olesen, et al.

 

James Michael McConnell v. Elmer R. Anderson, et. al.

 

Michael McConnell and Jack Baker of Minnesota became the first same-sex couple to legally marry in the United States, on September 3, 1971.

 

In Minnesota State Courts, McConnell and Baker fought for the legality of same-sex marriage but eventually lost in Richard John Baker v. Gerald R. Nelson, 291 Minn. 310, 191 N.W.2d 185 (1971) (The United States Supreme Court would later dismiss the appeal).

These efforts by McConnell came at a professional cost, as his activism was used as justification by the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota to deny his promotion to lead the Cataloging Division of the University’s St. Paul campus library.

McConnell sued the University and won in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota (316 F. Supp. 809 [D. Minn.]) on September 9, 1970, but lost on October 18, 1971, in the
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. (451 F.2d 193 (8th Cir. 1971)). The Court ruled that the University of Minnesota had not violated his First Amendment rights in denying his appointment due to his activism. The Supreme Court did not hear the case.

 

And while McConnell and Baker lost their cases to establish equal protection rights in employment, their efforts can be seen in the digitized Appellate Case File and Briefs and Appendices from the litigation in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Opinion, 10/18/1971, Appellate Case 20583: James Michael McConnell v. Elmer R. Anderson, et. al. (Published version of the opinion).

 

 

The struggle for equal protection rights for the LGBTQIA+ community has experienced many ups and downs over the decades, especially in the Federal Courts of the United States. One, Incorporated v. Otto K. Olesen and James Michael McConnell v. Elmer R. Anderson demonstrate both the successes and failures of that struggle. These two cases are just a small portion of Federal Court cases involving LGBTQIA+ matters available for researchers online and at National Archives facilities across the country.