«Brief Administrative History of the Courts U.S. district and circuit courts were created by the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789. District courts ...»
A number of special laws gave circuit courts jurisdiction over various matters, such as those relating to the infringement of patents and copyrights and controversies between trustees in bankruptcy and adverse claimants to property held by the trustees. Equity cases, as distinguished from law cases, excluded those in which a "plain, adequate, and complete remedy may be had at law." The equity jurisdiction of the United States courts is subject to neither limitation nor restraint by State legislation. While the procedure in law cases in Federal courts before 1938 generally followed procedures in the State courts, according to the State a particular Federal court covered, the practice in Federal equity was uniform throughout the country.
The equity jurisdiction of the districts courts was limited to the granting of junctions, reviewing cases filed to recover property from defendants as assets of bankrupts, and jurisdiction over all suits to enforce the lien of the United States upon real estate for any internal revenue tax.
Upon the termination of the circuit courts in 1911, all equity jurisdiction passed to the district courts.
Most of the equity cases concerned alleged infringements of patents, trademarks, and copyrights. Other cases involved violation of contract, conveyance of property to delay or deter payment of debt from bankruptcy, and antitrust actions by and against labor unions for conspiracies in restraint of trade and commerce. Suits in district courts often involved proceedings against consuls and vice consuls, petitions for writs of habeas corpus, deportation and denaturalization hearings, and receivership reorganizations of companies in bankruptcy. Actions were also brought by receivers of defunct national banks to collect funds from individual stockholders to discharge the banks’ debts.
Types of documents to be found in equity case files and records
Document series found in equity records include case files, dockets, minutes, rule books, orders, and decrees. The case files can contain bills of complaints, answers, affidavits, depositions, trial transcripts, injunctions, and exhibits. The exhibits will often include copies of patent drawings, photographs, scripts, music scores, and other items at issue in copyright, trademark, and patent infringement suits
A Special Note About Civil Court Records
The Federal district courts had been bound in civil cases by the Conformity Act of 1872 to follow the procedures of the State in which they were meeting. Federal procedures varied from State to State and were filled with inconsistencies. In 1938 the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure went into effect. The new rules abandoned the complex forms of action of the common law, unified law and equity, and provided for a single set of procedures for Federal courts throughout the nation. After September 1938 “equity” and “law” cases became “civil.” Source: Morris, Jeffrey B. Federal Justice in the Second Circuit: A History of the United States Courts in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont 1787 to 1987. Second Circuit Historical Committee, 1987.
Some Notable Law-Equity-Civil Cases at NARA’s Northeast Region There are numerous suits in equity brought by and against Thomas Edison relating to his numerous inventions, a copyright case brought against Orson Welles relating to Citizen Kane, the patent infringement case between the Wright Brothers and Glen Curtiss, the reorganization of the Shubert Theater group, and anti-trust actions against the sugar, tobacco, oil, and steamship industries. There are copyright cases involving Charlie Chaplin, Cole Porter, and Oscar Hammerstein, and the song “Happy Birthday.” A notable civil case was that of Curt Flood’s challenge to professional baseball’s reserve clause.
The great mass of Federal criminal jurisdiction rests upon the Constitutional authority of Congress to enact laws “necessary and proper” to the execution of specifically conferred powers. Criminal cases relate to such crimes as mutiny, piracy, assault, theft, murder on the high seas, the slave trade, counterfeiting and forgery, perjury, mail theft, sedition, smuggling, overloading a passenger vessel, revenue fraud, and conspiracy to invade nations at peace with the United States.
Criminal charges were also brought for encouraging soldiers to desert and resisting the draft. Treason, Communist activity, the theft of goods in interstate commerce, labor racketeering, organized crime activities, and murder committed on Federal property or military reservation are also tried in Federal court.
Types of documents to be found in criminal case files and records
Document series found in criminal records include case files, dockets, and minutes. The number and types of documents found in the case files vary. The type of document found most often is the indictment. Other documents frequently filed are depositions, warrants, recognizances, subpoenas, briefs, notes, trial transcripts, judgments, commitments, proceedings, notices, certificates, letters, and writs.
Some Notable Criminal Cases at NARA’s Northeast Region Notable cases include the espionage cases involving Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and Alger Hiss, and the prosecution of Susan B. Anthony for illegal voting. There are also case files concerning the slave trade and the General Slocum disaster.
Also prominent are the prosecutions of Gus Hall, William Remington, William Z.
Foster, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn for communist conspiracy and subversion, of Marcus Garvey for mail fraud, and the trial of Jacob Abrams and his codefendants for violation of the World War I sedition laws, a landmark case in first amendment jurisprudence.
Habeas Corpus Records
The writ of habeas corpus has been employed for many centuries to remove illegal restraint on personal liberty. In the Federal courts the writ has been used to maintain the supremacy of the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States and to protect personal liberty against unlawful restraints, insofar as the duty lies within the Federal government. The writ is also used to bring a prisoner into court to testify.
Many of the early cases concerned minors fraudulently enlisted in the Army or Navy for whom discharges and cancellations of enlistment were sought. There were also proceedings for the relief of persons imprisoned for debt. In the early part of the 20th century many of the actions involved aliens detained by the immigration authorities or arrested on the complaints of foreign governments for extradition as fugitives from justice.
Types of documents to be found in habeas corpus case files and records The records consist of case files and dockets. The case files can contain writs of habeas corpus, returns of writs, affidavits, orders of the court, and occasionally transcripts of testimony and depositions.
The revisionary or appellate power of the circuit courts over final decrees and judgments of the district courts was derived from the original Judiciary Act of 1789 and an act of March 3, 1803 (2 Stat. 244). It was exercised either by appeal, a proceeding that subjected both the law and the facts to a review; or by writ of error, a process that subjected only the laws to reexamination. When the amount in controversy exceeded $50, the appellate jurisdiction applied to all final decrees of the district courts in cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction (in which case the remedy was by appeal) and to all judgments in civil actions (in which case the remedy was by writ of error). As a result, the appellate case files were called "Error and Appeal" records by the circuit court.
The appellate cases pertain to a variety of subjects and relate to such matters as the maintenance of U.S. neutrality during foreign wars, the "quasi-war" with France during the John Adams Administration, the embargo during the Jefferson Administration, evasion of customs duties and trespass laws, salvage, privateer and prize law, mutinies and revolts, bankruptcy, slavery and the slave trade, protection of patents for inventions, and ejection of tenants and rent procedures.
Types of documents to be found in appellate jurisdiction case files The records consist of case files, dockets, bonds, and minutes.
The number and types of documents in the appellate, or error and appeal, case files vary. Some case files contain only an attested copy of the proceedings in the district court along with notations on the endorsement wrapper. Usually the case files also include certified transcripts or "apostles" of record of the cases in the district court, consisting of copies of the papers filed and of minute entries of the district court's actions in the cases. The transcripts include copies of libels, exhibits, notices of hearings, monitions, depositions, interrogatories, affidavits, briefs, bonds, statements of court costs, decrees, sentences, opinions, notices of appeal, and petitions for rehearing.
Some case files contain such circuit court documents as petitions of appeal for a reversal or modification of decrees of the district court, writs of error for the review of alleged mistakes of the district court, appeals from decisions of the district court refusing discharges to bankrupts, bills of exception, orders of the courts, assignments of error to rulings of the district court, and mandates of the Supreme Court of the United States in cases appealed from the circuit court.
For those case files involving seizure of ships and cargoes for violations of embargo acts or evasion of customs duties, there are copies of additional documents. Included are certificates of registry or enrollment, licenses, crew lists, shipping articles, clearance papers, repair bills, bills of lading, invoices, and depositions of ship's officers, crews, and passengers.
Records of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
The courts of appeals are intermediate courts created by an act of March 3, 1891, to relieve the Supreme Court of considering appeals in cases originally decided by Federal courts. They are empowered to review final and certain interlocutory decisions of district courts except where the law provides for direct review by the Supreme Court. They also review orders of Federal administrative bodies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Labor Relations Board.
The records of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit document appeals of lower Federal court decisions in Connecticut, New York, and Vermont.
Types of documents to be found in U.S. Court of Appeals case files The records consist of case files, dockets, minutes, and calendars.
The case files contain bills of cost, opinions, stipulations, transcripts of record from lower courts and administrative agencies, briefs, Supreme Court orders on petitions for writs of certiorari, and mandates.
Some Notable Appeals Cases at NARA’s Northeast Region There are appeals files for the Alger Hiss and Rosenberg espionage cases, the Danbury Hatters’ boycott, and the Curt Flood litigation regarding baseball’s reserve clause.
There are docket books available for most of the court records described in this brochure. Many docket books are indexed by the names of the parties in the case and provide the docket or case number. Each docket sheet will provide the date when the case commenced and list, in chronological order, the various documents filed and all the important acts done in court in the course of each proceeding. The docket will also indicate whether a case was appealed to the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court. Each book covers a specific time period.
In some cases there are general indexes to cases that cover longer time frames. The indexes will provide a docket number, but do not record the information found in a docket book. The indexes are in book and microfilm formats.
The staff of the National Archives and Records Administration Northeast Region New York will do a search for a case file and related court records in response to written, facsimile, or e-mail requests. To facilitate a search the following
information will be needed:
• The names of the parties involved (individual, company, organization, etc.)
• The nature of the litigation (civil, criminal, bankruptcy, admiralty, etc.)
• Approximate time period when the case was heard.