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Court Records

To view our individual holdings for these records, check Genealogy and Local History.

Court records may be used for a wide variety of research purposes. Researchers may use them to obtain information on family members, business histories, divorces, treatment of women or minority groups, criminal trials and interactions with the government.

Prior to World War I, most individuals of even modest standing appear in court records at least once during their lifetime. They may have been in court as jurors, witnesses, litigants, appointees, and so on. In fact, only a few generations ago, Americans viewed court terms as social occasions and indeed, at times, Americans were required to attend local court proceedings. Court records exist in one form or another back to the colonial period. Lawsuits in the past were just as common as they are today. In some cases, lawsuits were even more prevalent in the past because suits occurred over what would today be minor matters such as obscenities or scolding husbands! One court case may involve the names of 75-100 individuals.

Background

Local court systems vary from state to state; the basic laws of most states were inherited from England and were based upon local customs and usages. Generally, there are three types of legal actions brought before courts: civil actions (person vs. person) usually pertain to one individual harming another, their physical property, or their reputation; criminal actions (state vs. person) include felonies such as murder, robbery, rape and misdemeanors such as petty theft, prostitution, breaking the Sabbath; and equity actions which usually involve property rights.

Types of Courts

Both federal and state courts have two types of courts: trial courts and appellate courts. In Wisconsin, trial and appellate courts exist at the state level. Trial courts also exist at the county levels and are known as circuit courts. Several other courts are below circuit courts. These include county courts, which handle the same type of cases as circuit courts only on a smaller scale; probate courts, which handle the transferring of property and legal responsibilities for deceased or incompetent individuals; and municipal courts, which generally handle violations of local laws such as prohibition, fish and game misdemeanors, or driving without a license.

In the past, there were specialized courts at both the federal and state levels. Examples of these include claims courts in which government were petitioned for redress because of grievances. Grievances might pertain to unfair government dealings, unpaid pensions, boundary changes, damages for supplies and provisions during wars.

Admiralty courts had civil and criminal jurisdiction over a wide range of matters pertaining to business done in, or upon, or by the sea, public streams, freshwater, ports, rivers and creeks. Cases tried in admiralty courts concerned shipbuilding, seamen's wages, partnerships, transportation of goods.

Military courts were responsible for maintaining orderly operations and exacting obedience from military personnel. Courts martial or discipline occurred at all levels of the government.

Separate courts were established for specific population groups such as Native Americans.

The records of these specialized courts may be found in state archives, the national archives and its branches.

Specific Court Records

Legal actions create a wealth of documents pertaining to the case. Each step in the legal process—pleadings, collecting testimony, trial, and execution of judgment—generates court records.

In all court actions, the case files will have the most information for researchers. Case files contain original copies of evidence, writs, testimony, subpoenas, financial charges, and judgments. Case files vary tremendously in detail. Files involving purely monetary matters, as a rule, tend to have little historical value as individual files but do have value as a collective group of files. The most common of these is non-payment of debt. These civil case files simply tell us that one individual did not pay a debt or conversely, an individual was owed money by someone else.

Court actions pertaining to divorce are rich in detail. Generally, they will provide the names of the plaintiff and defendant and the complaint or reason the divorce was requested and the answer or response to the complaint. The complaints and answers provide insight about an individual’s personality, living conditions, morals, and economic situation. Documents in a divorce case file also contain statements about the couple's marriage—where and when the event occurred. The documents often contain statements about the geographic moves a couple made during their marriage. Finally, the divorce case files usually provide information about children such as names and birth dates or at least ages. Divorce actions may be found in all levels of courts.

Court case files may provide documentation about an individual's occupations or jobs. Civil case files also provide information about land holdings. This information is included in case files pertaining to mortgage foreclosures, disputes in the division of estates, and the sale of real estate. Often case files pertaining to businesses provide a visual image of the building or the inventory of goods involved with the business.

Court actions involving government entities often provide a history of municipalities, land matters, and individual organizations.

Criminal case files contain similar types of original court documents. Typically, the State of Wisconsin would be the plaintiff in criminal cases. The case types range from murder to violation of liquor laws during prohibition.

Other Records

The various levels of courts also produce other types of records as well. Examples include:

  • Numerous records relating to businesses were filed with courts, including article of incorporation
  • Records of ordinations
  • Records of officers, oaths and bonds, which include documents on those who served as constables, justices of the peace, notaries, etc.
  • Lists of jurors

Confidential/Restricted Records

Some court processes are restricted and confidential. Primarily these fall into four types: guardianships, adoptions, “insanities, and incompetents.”* The confidentiality exists to protect children in the case of guardianships and adoptions, and individual privacy or personal rights in the case of “insanities or incompetents.” Access to these records can be obtained by requests submitted to the appropriate court.

*Historical language used in court documents.

Check our holdings and request a research of court records.

Types of Court Records

Appearance Docket

A brief history of each action or proceeding from date first papers were filed in a case to its final disposition. Information in appearance dockets include names of plaintiffs and defendants, nature of action, attorneys, state taxes and clerk's fees, date, proceedings, types of action/case and citations to related court documents. Arranged chronologically by date first papers (summons, complaint or judgment on cognovit) were filed.

Case Files

Contain original copies of documents pertaining to a court case. Files may contain complaints, answers, exhibits, depositions, testimony, writs, subpoenas, and judgments. Case files generally contain the most amount of detail. Arranged numerically by court assigned number.

Certificates of Conviction

Filed with the clerk of circuit court by justices of the peace. Certificates indicate name and residence of the defendant, date and description of offense, sentence imposed, and the name of the justice of the peace. Usually chronological arrangement.

Chancery Docket

Chancery is synonymous with equity and is designed to provide a remedy for every injury. Functions similar to a judgment book. It provides a narrative summary concerning the filing of actions that occurred in each case. Chancery records often include considerable information about land transactions. Arranged chronologically by court term.

Citizenship Records

Documents pertaining to the process of immigrants becoming citizens. Documents include first papers or Declarations of Intention in which an immigrant declares his or her intention to become a citizen. The petition or naturalization record are the final papers granting citizenship. Until 1906, the amount of information included in these documents varies from county to county and by time period.

Court Calendar

The purpose is to list all cases docketed (scheduled) for each court term. Information includes title of action, attorneys, sometimes the offense, remarks (e.g., continued, jury, settled), costs, results (e.g., judgment, motion to dismiss, verdict of guilty, etc.) and entries (documents filed). Arranged chronologically by term of court.

Court Rules

Rules for the operational procedures of the court. May also include orders in response to attorneys' motions.

Information Book

Contains a copy of the district attorneys' criminal charges or complaints. A record of informing the individual of the charges against him or her.

Judgment Book

Includes names of plaintiffs and defendants, date of judgment, amount, date of execution, satisfaction date (date judgment was paid in full). In some cases, this record also contains a narrative summary of actions that occurred in each case (e.g., summons and complaints served, etc.). Arranged chronologically, usually by date of filing judgment or the actual judgment date.

Judgment Docket

Records the following information: full name and place of residence of the judgment debtor, names of judgment creditor, names of attorney for judgment creditor, date of entry of judgment, day and hour of entering into docket, amount of debt, damages or other sums of money recovered with the costs. Arranged chronologically by date of judgment. Provides only brief information as to the amount of the judgment—of very little use.

Jurors' Records

Generally includes a list of potential jurors for grand and petite juries as selected by the court or county commission. Also, may include writs to sheriffs ordering them to bring selected jurors to court, abstracts of compensations and lists of defaulting jurors.

Lien

A claim held by a person upon the property of another until a debt has been paid; a form of security for unpaid debts.

Mechanics' Liens

Liens filed against property by contractors and their subcontractors. Information in documents includes the date, names of the parties involved, amount of the lien, and, in some cases, itemized lists of costs incurred by the contractor. Usually arranged chronologically.

Minute Books

A brief narrative summary of proceedings in open court. The purpose is to provide an abbreviated summary of each proceeding, which can be used as a basic reference in recalling activity that occurred in each case. It provides information about the motions and orders during a trial, names of witnesses, jurors drawn, officer sworn to take them in charge, jury verdicts and openings and adjournments of the court. May also include name of the judge, court officials, plaintiffs, defendants and court recesses. Generally does not provide any facts or details about the case. Arranged chronologically.

Oaths and Bonds

Official oaths and bonds submitted by county appointed and elected officials, including sheriffs, deputy sheriffs, and constables, clerks and deputy clerks, judges and justices of the peace, county commissioners, and notary public. Usually arranged chronologically.

Order Book

Official record of all orders of the judge. Orders are often directed to the sheriff, marshal, or constable to enforce. Order books may include a brief summary of the case. Arranged chronologically.

Ordinations of Clergy

Record of credentials of clergyperson which was required to be filed before individual was authorized to perform marriages. Includes a copy of the certificate, which contains name of the clergyperson, name of church, and name of ecclesiastical superior. Usually arranged chronologically by date of filing.

Plaintiff and Defendant Indices

Arranged by alphabetical segments by plaintiff or defendant. Provides major access to court case files. Often have idiosyncrasies such as indexing "The Jason Shoe Company" under "The!"

Record of Executions

Copies of judgments issued by the Court with orders to the sheriff to carry out the judgment. Includes notations of the satisfaction of judgments. Arranged chronologically by date order was issued.

Register of Officials

A listing of the names and terms of appointment for court commissioners, deputy sheriffs, notaries public, municipal judges, county officials, and justices of the peace. Information also includes residences and comments.

Select Legal Terminology

Administration

The management or settling of an estate of a person who died without a will, or of a person whose estate is being handled by an executor under a will or of a minor or mentally incompetent person.

Administrator

A person appointed by the court to administer the estate of an incompetent person or an intestate. Administratrix is a female administrator.

Affidavit

A written statement of facts, made voluntarily, under oath before an officer of the court.

Answer

A plea made by the defendant in response to the plaintiff's allegations as made in the complaint. Defendant can answer by denying the charges or confessing to them.

Attested Will

A will prepared in writing and signed by responsible persons who certify to the court that the will was written at the instigation of the deceased, of their own free will, and that they were of sound mind.

Bequest

A gift of personal property by will.

Chattel

Term for personal property, often used in a will.

Child of Tender Years

A child under fourteen years old.

Circuit Court

Local trial court, primarily at the county level

Civil Action

A court case involving two individuals (person vs. person). Civil actions are commenced because of injuries done by one individual to another's physical being, property (real or personal), or reputation. Examples of civil actions include property damage, libel, assault, negligence, breach of promise, trespassing, divorce, and so on.

Codicil

A signed and witnessed addition to the end of a will by the testator, after the will has been made and signed. There is no limit on the number of codicils.

Cognovit Judgment

Also known as confession of judgment. The entry of a judgment upon a written confession or admission of the debtor without formality, time or expense of an ordinary legal proceeding.

Complaint

The first pleading of the plaintiff. It sets out the facts and allegations upon which the claims for relief are based. The first summons of a case is attached to it, sometimes physically attached.

Conclusions of Law

Conclusion reached through the application of the rules of law based on the evidence. It is usually attached to and follows the findings of fact.

Contested Will

A will that is taken into court to question the contents.

Criminal Action

A court case pertaining to any act or wrong which governments have determined injurious to the public or society. Crimes include both felonies (murder, robbery, rape, burglary) and misdemeanors (petty theft, drunkenness, prostitution, breaking the Sabbath). Criminal actions would involve state (or people) as plaintiffs and a person as the defendant (e.g., State of Wisconsin vs. Hans Pearson).

Decedent

A deceased person.

Defendant

The individual or party against whom relief or recovery is sought in an action or suit. The party against whom a claim or charge is brought in a proceeding.

Deposition

Written statement or testimony of a witness made under oath, taken in question and answer form, with opportunity for the adversary to be present and cross-examine.

Devise

A gift of real property by will.

Dower

Land and rent to which a widow has claim, after the death of her husband, for the support of herself and her children. Usually this is one-third the value of all lands her spouse owned.

Equity Action

A court case usually pertaining to property rights. Cases are determined by principles of fairness, not principles of law. Examples include probate disputes, estate divisions and dissolution of partnerships.

Escheat

The revision of property to the state when there are no qualified heirs.

Estate

The total of a person's property.

Et al.

Latin word meaning "and others." If a document has et al. in its labels, several individuals are involved.

Executor

A person named by the writer of the will to see that the provisions of the will are carried out after death. Executrix is a female named to administer a will.

Findings of Fact

Factual determinations made by a court officer, jury, or administrative body, based upon the evidence that has been presented to it. Conclusions of law are often attached to it.

Goods and Chattels

Full description of personal property.

Guardian

A person charged to manage the rights and property of another person, such as a minor or person incapable of managing their own affairs.

Guardian ad Litem

A guardian appointed by the court.

Heir

A person who inherits or succeeds to possession of property, by legal means, after the death of another.

Holographic Will

A will written completely in the handwriting of the person making the will. These wills are signed and dated, but they are not witnessed.

Infant

A person not of legal age, a minor.

Interrogatories

A witness's testimony consisting of written answers to questions.

Intestate

A person who dies without a will.

Inventory

A list of personal and household goods left by the deceased, with their appraised value.

Issue

All descendants of a common ancestor.

Judgment

A final determination of the rights of the parties to a lawsuit. A decision.

Justice of the Peace

A judicial officer of inferior rank whose jurisdiction is limited and defined by statutes. The jurisdiction tends to be over minor matters (e.g., marriages) and lesser criminal offenses. Most justice of the peace functions have been transferred to lower courts known as municipal courts.

Municipal Court

Court that handles violations of local laws such as violations of prohibition, fish and game misdemeanors, driving without a license, etc.

Natural Affections

Between near relatives. A good clause to look for that indicates relationships.

Nuncupative Will

A will that is oral (often at deathbed) and dictated to witnesses. The witnesses are responsible for converting it to writing and presenting it to the court within a certain time period.

Personal Property

All property that is subject to ownership that is not real property or land. Includes moveable and tangible things (animals, furniture, merchandise, etc.) as well as items such as stocks, shares patents, and copyrights.

Plaintiff

The individual who brings the action in court. The person who complains or sues in a personal action.

Praecipe

Order, command. A writ commanding the defendant to do the thing required or to show reason why it has not been done.

Primogeniture

Old common law system of inheritance where the eldest son inherits the father's property—excluding all other sons and daughters.

Probate Court

Court that handles the transfer of the legal responsibilities for deceased individuals and individuals judged incompetent. The court has jurisdiction over the probate (prove) of wills, administration and settlement of estates.

Real Property

Relating to land.

Receiver

Person appointed by the court to hold property while the settlement of a suit is pending.

Referee:

A quasi-judicial officer appointed by the court for a specific purpose, to whom the court refers the power and duty to take testimony, determine issues of fact, and report findings of fact to the court upon which the court can make conclusions of law and enter judgment.

Replevin

A personal action to recover possession of property or goods unlawfully taken or held.

Summons

A mandate to notify the defendant that an action has been instituted against him or her and that s/he is required to answer to it at a time and place named.

Supreme Court Rule 72

Wisconsin Supreme Court order which governs retention of court records. Effective April 1, 1987. Establishes specific time periods for retentions of major types of court documents.

Testate

A person who dies leaving a valid will.

Testimony

A statement used as evidence made by a witness, under oath, usually related to a legal proceeding. Evidence is the broader term and includes testimony.

Will

A written statement by which a person regulates the disposition of property after his or her death. Will is a general term and sometimes the phrase "last will and testament" is used instead. In this instance will would refer to real property and testament would refer to personal property.

Writ

A mandatory order or direction given as a rule of action or conduct issued by the authority in the name of the state. It is addressed to the sheriff or other officer of the law, or directly to the person whose action the court desires to command. A writ requires the performance of a specific act and contains directions as to what is required to be done.