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Court Records : District Courts

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Organization of District Court Records

Judge & employees, Meeker Co. District Court, 1974

District court records are arranged by the county in which the case action took place and are organized by records series (for example: case files, registers of actions, judgment books, and minutes). 

As Minnesota's basic trial courts of original jurisdiction, the state's district courts hear all types of civil and criminal cases.

Civil Cases

Civil cases: disputes between private citizens, governmental bodies, businesses, and organizations.

            They may concern:

    • allegations of wrong-doing by one party against another or against a governmental body
    •  personal or property rights
    • disputed real or personal property claims
    • contract or payment disputes
    • marriage dissolutions (divorces)
    • adoptions

In a civil case, one or more plaintiffs bring an action by filing a summons and complaint, a document detailing the nature of the complaint and summoning one or more defendants to the court to answer to the complaint. Both sides may present evidence before a judge or jury. The judge or jury will render a judgment deciding the merits of the case. Frequently, this judgment will result in the award of monetary payments to one party.

Criminal Cases

Criminal cases: concern allegations that an individual, business, or corporation has committed a crime by breaking a law.

               They may concern:

    • serious felonies punishable by confinement in a state correctional facility and/or payment of fines (for example, murder, rape, robbery, arson, burglary, kidnapping)
    • gross misdemeanors  punishable by confinement in a local jail and/or payment of fines (for example, multiple driving-while-intoxicated offenses)
    • petty misdemeanors punishable by payment of a fine (such as writing bad checks and parking tickets)

The government (usually the state but in the past, occasionally a city, village, or county) brings the action and acts as the plaintiff. The accused is the defendant. The case usually begins with an indictment, which might have been issued by a grand jury or asked for by a county attorney. Each party may present evidence before a judge or jury, which then renders a verdict or sentence.

 

Types of District Court Records

Case Files:

  • Contain all documents filed in a specific case. 
  • Are usually numbered sequentially based on when the initial action was begun. 
    • Initially, civil and criminal files may have been filed in one sequence. Most counties, however, ultimately separated civil and criminal files into separate series. 
  • A transcript of the trial may have been produced.
    • If a case went to trial, was appealed to a higher court, or resulted in an incarceration in a state correctional facility.
    • The transcript may be very large and may not be physically filed with the other case documents. Because of this physical separation, many transcripts no longer exist.
    • Transcripts were not produced for most cases.
  • MNHS generally accepts case files through about 1950 from the 87 district courts around the state.

Plaintiff/Defendant Indexes to Case Files:

  • Include the names of the plaintiff and defendant, arranged somewhat alphabetically, and the case file number assigned to that case.
    • Beginning in 1885, district courts were mandated to create indexes, and some courts retroactively indexed case files back to the beginning of their county. 
  • Separate volumes were created for plaintiffs and defendants.
  • Most plaintiff/defendant indexes remain in the custody of the county, however a few counties have transferred some of their plaintiff/defendant indexes MNHS.
    • Researchers may have to contact the court administrator in order to get the case file number so that the case files, even those that have been transferred to MNHS, can be accessed.
    • In criminal cases, some courts indexed all criminal plaintiffs under "S" for "State of Minnesota". Civil cases that did not have a plaintiff or defendant (formation of judicial districts, changes of names, business dissolutions, etc.) are frequently indexed under "I" for "In the matter of…".

Registers of Actions

  • Frequently separated into registers of civil actions and registers of criminal actions.
  • Contain a record of the opening of each case and a recording of each document filed in the case either by a disputing party or by the court.
    • Frequently the registers will include the case file number, providing an alternative reference to the plaintiffs/defendants indexes.
  • Usually date from the establishment of the court system within the county
  • Provide a brief framework for the history of the case, its participants, and whether or not it proceeded through court action to a resolution.
    • For criminal actions, the registers often contain a summary of the final verdict.
    • Many registers of actions volumes have their own indexes within each volume.

Judgment Books:

  • Contain a transcript of the judgment from most civil cases for which a formal judgment was issued.
  • May include a reference to the case file number.
  • Frequently these volumes are indexed.
  • Do not include criminal cases. 

Judgment Dockets:

  • Contain a record of monetary awards and payments that the court issued in civil cases.
    • The dockets are generally arranged alphabetically by debtor. 

Indictment Books:

  • Contain a record of individuals charged with crimes.
    • Criminal indictments may have been issued by a grand jury or authorized by a county attorney based on information provided to the court (termed "indictment on information").
  • These volumes usually are indexed and can provide evidence that a case file may have existed for a particular case. Grand jury indictment records generally begin about 1881, and usually cease about 1982; indictment on information records generally date from the late 1910s or 1920s.

Accessing District Court Records

In-Person

The first step in using district court records is to determine in which county a specific action occurred. 

Search the library catalog by county name for district court records at MNHS.  
Example: "Otter Tail County District Court"

Most district court records at MNHS are open to unrestricted use. Certain categories of civil case files, especially adoption files less than 100 years old and some paternity case files, have restricted access and special access procedures. The staff of the library can assist patrons with these special conditions.

Hennepin County civil  case files are located off site in remote storage. Advance arrangements are required in order to view the files. 

Some counties have retained case files relating to specific types of legal actions, regardless of the date.  This means that they are not available at the Minnesota Historical Society and researchers must inquire with the county court administrator or records office about access.  The most notable instance of this is the Hennepin County District Court.  It retained files dealing with family matters (including adoption and divorce), land, city charters, probate court appeals, and trusts, and destroyed many files dealing with miscellaneous money judgments. 

Order Online

To order a court record fill out the order form on the Court Case Search Request page at our online store. Please include any and all information you have about the record you are looking for.   

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