TBO.com: Tampa Bay Online, The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Times - breaking news and weather.
Tuesday, Sep 23, 2014
Lifestyle Stories

Appeals court records can reveal colorful family history

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 05:25 PM

In 1846, Joseph Nunez transferred ownership of several slaves he'd he had inherited to Alexander Urquhart. A year later, Urquhart sold the slaves to Seaborn C. Bryan. After Nunez's death, the administrator of his estate, Hugh Walton, sued Bryan to recover the slaves.

Walton's strategy was to have the Georgia courts declare that Nunez was a free person of color rather than a white man. State law at that time prohibited anyone who was at least one-eighth black from selling or giving away property. If the courts agreed Nunez had an eighth or more black ancestry, he could not have sold the slaves to Urquhart, who could not then have sold them to Bryan.

The matter came to the Georgia Supreme Court three times between 1853 and 1864 before the parties finally accepted the court's decisions that Nunez was not a person of color.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Alfred Eubanks' two brothers trying to get their half siblings declared illegitimate in order to void the siblings' inheritance rights.

The appellate level of the state and federal court systems are filled with treasures such as the Nunez and Eubanks cases, but few genealogists ever delve into the records. They hold amazing stories that reveal character flaws and sometimes surprising heroic lives.

Last week we explored trial court records that researchers can find at local courthouses and federal archives. When a trial court renders a judgment, the losing party sometimes refuses to accept the decision, and the issue goes to the next level, the appellate court of the state or federal government.

Head for the law library

Case files on appellate matters are housed at state or federal archives, but the easiest way to research is at the law library. This can be a daunting task.

Law libraries are located at universities with law schools, or attached to the county government for use by local and government lawyers. Usually, the public is allowed to use them.

Before you visit, however, call and see whether they are open to the public for specified hours only. And although you'll find employees of most libraries are there to assist, they're usually working with law students, so don't expect them to be as helpful with genealogical issues as public librarians.

Decisions rendered by appellate courts are published in books called "reporters." In Florida, for example, they would include cases decided by the Florida Supreme Court after the matter had been appealed from a lower county trial court.

The Florida Supreme Court heard its first case in 1846. Stewart v. Preston arose from a mortgage dispute in Gadsden County. When a case is printed in a reporter it has information added to its name. In this case Stewart V. Preston became Stewart v. Preston, 1 FL 1. The 1 FL 1 tells the researcher how to find the case in a state's published reporter.

So if you go to a law library, find the area that shelves the Florida reporters and look for volume 1 and open the book to page 1 to see Stewart v. Preston.

But how would you know which reporter to check if you didn't have the citation or name of a case?

More books to check

Another set of books - state digests - will point the way. Every state has a set of digests and one of the volumes is called the Table of Cases.

The only problem with this research approach is that the table lists cases by plaintiff names. That means you will find your ancestor in a table of cases only if he was the plaintiff.

The two parties to a case are the plaintiff (also called the appellant) and the defendant (also called the appellee). At this point, a good researcher will deploy a standard genealogical procedure of researching the ancestor's friends, enemies, neighbors and collateral relatives.

In order to fight legal battles the parties had to have known each other, so identify as many people as you can that your ancestor knew - and hope that he sued one of them.

These reporters and digests are printed by West Publishing Co., which also publishes WestLaw online at www.westlaw.com. Using WestLaw, a researcher can search for any name or topic reviewed in any state or federal case. The catch, of course, is that a hefty price tag prohibits most genealogists from subscribing.

When you are in a county researching, ask whether the local government law library has a WestLaw subscription. Many allow the public on-site access. Law school libraries also have such subscriptions, but may limit them to student use. It's always worth asking.

A final research strategy is to go to www.books.google.com and enter the ancestor names in the search engine. Many of the earlier state reporters - the ones a genealogist would want - have been digitized and are there free for the taking.

Legal research is different and awkward for most new or inexperienced genealogists but well worth getting over the fear factor.


Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Getaway, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa FL 33606 or stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist with

Subscribe to The Tampa Tribune

Comments