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Court Records : Getting Started

Types of Court Records

The courts produced a variety of types of records. 

The most common is a case file.  Case files are found in district courts, probate courts, and the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.  You must have a case file number to locate a case file. 

Many courts also created indexes, registers of action, minute books, dockets, and judgment books.  Other court record types include:

  • Naturalization records documenting the citizenship process
  • Coroner's records
  • Business name records
  • Land records
  • Registration and certificate records
  • Miscellaneous records

Research Tips

Determine if the case is a state or federal case 

Minnesota district courts hear cases under Minnesota law and have broad trial jurisdiction, so they are usually a good place to start.  In addition, many of the criminal cases heard by the more localized justice of the peace and municipal courts had their sentences filed with or reviewed by the district courts.  

If an accused is charged with a violation of federal law, that case will be heard in a federal court.  MNHS does not have records of the federal courts. Those records are at the National Archives.

Determine which type of Minnesota court had jurisdiction over a case

Since the mid-1960s, the Minnesota court system has undergone several major reorganizaitons.  Court records at MNHS generally reflect the organization at the time of the creation and are cataloged under the courts' older names and jurisdictions. 

  • District Court: Handling of civil and criminal disputes
  • Probate CourtHandling of wills and estates for deceased individuals and family matters
  • Supreme Court & Court of Appeals: Decisions of the district courts were frequently appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court (or through the Minnesota Court of Appeals after 1983). Appellate court files may contain additional information on a case.  
  • Other Minnesota Courts: Municipal courts, justice courts, courts of common pleas, family courts or divisions, juvenile courts, Tax Court, and Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals 

Determine where the records are held

  • Not all district court records have been or will be transferred to MNHS. Existing records not held by MNHS are held by their respective county courts. 
  • Generally, only case files from before 1950 have been transferred to MNHS.
  • Not all  pre-1950 files still exist.  Some files have been destroyed over time in accordance with records disposition laws, by natural disasters, or due to poor storage.

Preliminary Research Links

Useful Terms

Case file - File containing all documents filed in a case. Generally does not include trial transcripts. Case files are organized by the number of the case assigned by the court.

Defendant - Person or party who is sued in a civil case or accused in a criminal case.

Docket - Summary of proceedings in a case. May be part of a docket book or set of docket records.

Judgment - The official decision of a court.

Plaintiff - The person or party who starts a lawsuit. Plaintiff is a more historical term found in records at the Minnesota Historical Society. The modern term is petitioner.

For more legal terms see the glossary of court-related terms on the Minnesota Courts website.

MNHS Reference Staff

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