Legal History Treasures in Court Documents

Historical superior court records show us life in the past. Individually, they tell stories of business or personal relationships gone sour, probate divisions, all manner of property disputes, and family law decisions. When aggregated, they shine light on matters of legal heritage—like the defense of slaves against criminal prosecution or the evolution of contract terminology.

“Local legal records at the trial court level constitute a vast treasure house of information about the living law of the United States as it evolved over the years,” says Lawrence M. Friedman, Marion Rice Kirkwood Professor of Law, whose scholarship often draws 
on such court records. “These records are scattered among hundreds of counties; they are almost entirely unindexed, uncatalogued—and unused except by lawyers interested in particular cases. Thousands of these records are vanishing every year, as counties and states struggle with problems of storage and space.”

Now, researchers can use a unique collection of these California records in the Robert Crown Law Library, thanks to Friedman’s 
efforts to rescue thousands of files from the dustbins of courts—and the library staff’s determination to make those records accessible.

Ordinarily, county court records can be tricky, or even impossible, to locate. A fuzzy network of state statutes, court rules, and 
local archival practices dictates how long such documents are retained by each superior court. State archives and libraries often collect historical state court records but tend to focus on appellate or supreme court files—not those of the counties. California statutes and court rules facilitate the preservation of these documents, however, by enabling educational and cultural institutions to take in files that county clerks would otherwise discard. While many seemingly irrelevant court records have been lost through the years, Friedman has saved approximately 4,000 of these gems—amounting to nearly 100 bankers’ boxes that have been processed and filed by library staff. Still to come is a “finding aid” that will track descriptive data, such as filing dates, counties, and party names, to aid searches. Library staff expect that to be available next year. A longer version of this report by Reference Librarian Rachael Samberg will appear in a forthcoming issue of California Legal History Journal.