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«Brief Administrative History of the Courts U.S. district and circuit courts were created by the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789. District courts ...»

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National Archives at New York City

Federal Court Records

Brief Administrative History of the Courts

U.S. district and circuit courts were created by the Judiciary Act of September 24,

1789. District courts generally have had original jurisdiction in admiralty and

bankruptcy cases, suits for penalties or seizures under Federal laws, non-capital

criminal proceedings, and suits exceeding $100 in value in which the United

States was the plaintiff.

The circuit courts heard appeals from the district courts and had original jurisdiction over actions involving aliens or citizens of different States and law and equity suits where the matter in dispute exceeded $500. In 1891, the appellate jurisdiction of the circuit courts was transferred to the newly created circuit courts of appeals. The Judiciary Act of 1911 abolished the circuit courts and provided for the transfer of their records and remaining jurisdiction to the district courts.

U.S. Circuit and District Court Records at the National Archives Northeast Region – New York The National Archives and Records Administration Northeast Region - New York has custody of records filed at the following U.S. Circuit and District Courts

located in New York, New Jersey, and Puerto Rico:

New Jersey (The jurisdiction of the Court covers the entire State as one judicial district. The Court now holds sessions at Camden, Newark, and Trenton) U.S. Circuit Court for the District of New Jersey, 1842-1920.

U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, 1820-1967.

The National Archives at New York City One Bowling Green, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10004 • Toll Free Telephone: 1-866-840-1752 Visit our website for upcoming workshops and other information at: http://www.archives.gov/northeast/nyc/ New York (Pre-Federal) Vice Admiralty Court for the Province of New York, 1685-1775.

New York (New York is now divided into four judicial districts) U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York, 1790-1913.

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, 1789-1979.

(The District of New York was one of the original 13 courts established by the Judiciary Act of

1789. When it convened on November 3, 1789, it was the first meeting of a court ever held under the sovereignty of the United States) U.S. Circuit Court for the Northern District of New York, 1812-1919.

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, 1852-1968.

(The Northern District was established by the Act of April 9, 1814) U.S. Circuit Court for the Eastern District of New York, 1865-1914.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, 1865-1979.

(The Eastern District was established by an Act of February 25, 1865) U.S. Circuit Court for the Western District of New York, 1891-1911.

U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, 1815-1976.

(The Western District was established in 1900. The District was formed from the 17 westernmost counties of the Northern District) Puerto Rico U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, 1897-1976.

(Established as one judicial district by the Act of March 2, 1917)

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The earliest court records at the National Archives Northeast Region - New York are those of the Vice Admiralty Court for the Province of New York (1685-1775) and the Court of Admiralty of the State of New York (1784-1788).

The records consist of libels, monitions, claims, interrogatories, depositions, articles, letters of marque, manifests, and orders that were filed in prize cases, suits relating to seamen’s wages, salvage cases, violations of customs laws, mutiny, cruel and unusual treatment of seamen, and piracy. There are also three volumes of minutes.

The earliest case is the 1685 slave trading case involving the pink Charles. Also of interest is a 1717 piracy case that contains depositions that provide a vivid account of the plundering of vessels, the forceful detention of crews, and other acts of maritime lawlessness.

Alexander Hamilton appears as a proctor in some of the cases brought before the Court of Admiralty for the State of New York.

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Most of the early admiralty cases before the U.S. District Courts concerned seizures and forfeiture of vessels and cargoes for violations of customs laws, nonpayment of seamen's wages, physical abuse of seamen, or prize, ransom, and salvage rights. Other cases involved operating a steamboat without an annual inspection certificate, carrying an excess of passengers, violations of embargo, piracy, and engaging in the slave trade. There are also a small number of common law suits for the period 1863-78, chiefly involving foreign consuls, and suits brought against obscene and immoral importations.

Later cases would also involve suits arising out of collisions, cargo loss or damage, pilotage and towage, breach of charter party, debts for supplies and materials, bills of bottomry, marine insurance, and illegal sale and purchase transactions between U.S. citizens and foreign persons resulting in violations of vessel registration acts. Personal injury suits brought by seamen (Jones Act) are also numerous.

A major part of admiralty litigation involves the limitation of liability statutes.

Under these laws a ship owner may limit both his maritime and non-maritime liability to the value of the vessel or its freight after any disaster, act, loss, or damage incurred without his knowledge, fault, or neglect.





Prize cases form a major part of the admiralty records located at NARA’s Northeast Region - New York. Prize law concerns the capture of enemy property by a belligerent at sea during war. The determination of the legality of the capture and its liability to confiscation and condemnation rests with the prize courts of the belligerent state. Special collections of prize records exist for the War of 1812 and the Civil War. There are also files for prizes taken in the Spanish American and Second World Wars.

Types of documents to be found in admiralty case files and records Document series found in admiralty records include case files, dockets, minutes, stipulations for value, bonds, and marshal’s reports of sale.

Types of documents in the files include libels, narratives, and informations explaining the nature of the suits; amended informations and libels; answers of respondents to allegations; monitions summoning interested parties to appear;

respondents' claims for property libeled; interrogatories, depositions, affidavits, and transcripts of testimony of witnesses; demurrers, rejoinders, and other pleadings; bills of exception to decisions of the court on points of law; opinions of the court, consents, writs, and reports of court costs; reports of commissioners relating to the ascertainment of the amounts of damages and other matters;

invoices, contracts, reports of survey for repair, shipping articles, crew lists, vessel logs, manifests, and other documents submitted as evidence; and petitions, proofs of claims for damages, appraisers’ reports, and related documents filed in limitation of liability suits.

Some Notable Admiralty Cases at NARA’s Northeast Region Famous case files include the limitation of liability actions related to the sinkings of the Titanic, Lusitania, Morro Castle, and the Andrea Doria. There is also a case file seeking to ban James Joyce’s Ulysses as an obscene import.

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NARA’s Northeast Region has custody of the records generated by the national bankruptcy Acts of 1800, 1841, 1867, and 1898. Each of the laws was approved shortly after a period of business depression and, with the exception of the 1898 Act, was repealed when business conditions improved. The Act of 1800 was repealed in 1803, the Act of 1841 in 1843, and the Act of 1867 in 1878. The Act of 1898 is still in force, although it has been amended periodically.

Types of documents to be found in bankruptcy case files and records Document series found in bankruptcy records include case files, dockets, indexes, records of accounts and expenditures, bankruptcy decrees, bonds, and certificates of discharge.

Types of documents often found in case files include schedules of the petitioner’s debts, real and personal estate inventories, proof of publication of bankruptcy notices, depositions, affirmations, affidavits, and proofs of debt by petitioners or creditors; transcripts of testimony; exhibits presented by debtors at examinations containing statements of debts due and owed by them, general accounts of business profits and losses; assignee appointments and assignee reports;

commissioner reports; and reports of trustees, receivers, and appraisers relating to the administration, liquidation, and distribution of bankrupt’s assets. There are also indentures, subpoenas, bonds for the security of costs, bonds to prove bankruptcy, powers of attorney, orders for a dividend, and certificates of discharge.

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The case files of the 1898 bankruptcy act were screened. Only those filed under certain chapters of the act, those involving real property, and those of notable individuals or companies were retained as permanent records.

Some Notable Bankruptcy Cases at NARA’s Northeast Region There are personal bankruptcies of famed photographer Mathew Brady, theatrical performer Edwin Booth, and singer-actor Dean Martin. There are also corporate bankruptcy files of the New York, Ontario, and Western Railway and the Munson Steamship Line.

–  –  –

Law cases, as distinguished from equity cases, were civil cases in which a remedy was provided by common law or statute. Many of the cases concerned suits for the recovery of sums due under various forms of obligation or promise, including nonpayment of promissory notes, failure to pay for goods, and settlement of estates; personal injuries; the use of contract labor; damages sustained by forcible ejectment from lands and tenements, which in effect usually meant contested title to real estate; infringement of patents or copyrights; suits for damages for the publication of false and defamatory matter; for overpayment of Government salaries and pensions; and for retailing alcoholic beverages without a license. There are also cases relating to the enforcement of customs and internal revenue laws, seizures on land and water made under Federal laws, and records relating to wages and effects of deceased and deserting seamen.

The district courts also exercised concurrent jurisdiction, with State and circuit courts, over all cases where an alien sued for a tort in violation of the laws of nations, or a treaty of the United States; concurrent jurisdiction, with State and circuit courts, over all suits at common law where the United States, or one of its officers, sued under the authority of an act of Congress; and exclusive original jurisdiction over suits against foreign consuls and vice consuls, with the exception of criminal prosecutions. Periodically this jurisdiction was expanded to cover cases arising under United States postal laws and under civil rights legislation.

Types of documents to be found in law case files and records

Document series found in law records include case files, dockets, minutes, judgment rolls, bonds, orders, decrees, writs of capias and venire, process and execution registers (to satisfy financial judgments), bail registers, and bail pieces.

There are also petitions for the remission of fines, penalties, and forfeitures incurred under revenue or maritime laws, warrants of remission, and Presidential warrants of remission.

Types of documents found in the case files include complaints and declarations or narratives explaining the plaintiffs' causes of action; answers of defendants;

demurrers, rejoinders, and other pleadings; bills of exceptions to decisions of the court upon points of law; affidavits and depositions of witnesses and other documents submitted as evidence; and orders of the court, opinions, consents, warrants, writs, bonds, judgments, and reports of court costs. In suits removed from State courts, a certified copy of the proceedings, processes, and other papers constituting the State court records is usually in the case file.

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