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”
-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.
*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 email@example.com.
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:
- Your contact information;
- Link to index of interest (e.g., “Civil Index,” https://catalog.archives.gov/id/2800723); and
- Name that you would like searched
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.
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)