Researching 18th Century Judicial Cases from the Parlement of Paris

The latest issue of French History offers an illuminating  article by the legal historian David Feutry on the difficulties of researching judicial cases from the Parlement of Paris, an important judicial appellate body during the Ancien Régime.  The Parlement’s defense of aristocratic privileges and corruption has influenced French thinking about the the proper role of the judicial branch since the French Revolution.

Feutry explains that the organization of the Parlement’s documents and finding aids and the often labyrinthine procedural histories of the cases make researching the files a daunting task.

“It is a complex business to find a case or judgment in the registers of the Parlement. Not only is the date of a decision required, but the way in which the matter was decided; something brought for a hearing might have been through every stage, from hearing right through to a final decision by one of the chambers of Inquests. In that case different stages of its progress would be recorded separately in all the series of the Parlement’s records.” … “a case is unlikely to be found in a single user friendly archival unit.”

In addition to the complexity of Parlement registers, the author reminds us that fires and deliberative destruction destroyed many valuable records.The article also provides an excellent diagram showing the many different paths a case could take through the chambers of the Parlement of Paris.

The Historian’s Mountain of Paper: the Parlement of Paris and the Analysis of Civil Suits in the Eighteenth Century
David Feutry
translated by Bill Doyle
26 French History 277 (2012)

Finding History in a Drawer

In 1875, a jury committed Mary Todd Lincoln to an insane asylum.  This week, the Chicago Tribune reported that two Illinois State Supreme Court justices discovered her trial papers still on file with the Cook County Clerk!  The Clerk’s Office will be donating them to the Lincoln museum, but we hope the story does not end there.  Like many others, we’ve previously posted about the cultural heritage reflected in state court files.  Some of the stories told in these documents are historically significant, like Mary Todd Lincoln’s commitment, or John Wesley Hardin’s murder trial (see this Texas Task Force report).  Many stories, however, are just minor threads in life’s tapestry: divorces, probates, business disputes.  Whether the story is big or small, the court records that tell it may be irreplaceable.

Each state’s preservation rules differ.  Some place the retention determination in the hands of state libraries or archives, some issue mandatory retention schedules based on the nature of the action, and some afford the clerk of court discretion to dispose of files after prescribed time periods.  Even if a clerk of court wanted to save everything, storage expenses and space constraints make this impossible.  The costs of digitizing every paper record are prohibitive.  As cultural institutions may not be interested in less noteworthy files, many are noticed for destruction.  Provided that a state’s rules allow it, however, law libraries may be uniquely positioned to rescue these files — preserving not just the documents, but also state history.  And if you spend some time digging through them all, you never know just what you might find…

Don’t Mess With Texas State Court Documents

State court case files are rife with personal and community histories that often cannot be found anywhere else.  These documents also reflect developments in the language of the law, and the procedures of our court systems.  Preserving these historical gems is increasingly important as many records face destruction due to court space and budget constraints, and the ill effects of time or the elements.  We hope to provide periodic updates here about states’ efforts to preserve such records and, on that note, want to spread the word about developments today in Texas.

Just shy of two years ago, the Texas Supreme Court established a volunteer task force of attorneys, judges, historians, document preservationists, and county and statewide officials to “develop a report that discusses statewide county preservation needs, the importance of protecting the records, and providing assistance to counties to do that.”  (See this Texas state bar blog.)  After extensive studies, the Task Force issued this report on August 31, 2011.  In addition to containing practical information for other jurisdictions similarly seeking to preserve state court files, the report contains anecdotes that scratch the surface of the kind of information at risk of being lost.

Here is an excerpt from its “Overview”:

In his classic song, Hardin Wouldn’t Run, Johnny Cash sang that outlaw John Wesley Hardin was a steadfast man. Truth is, Hardin was not so firmly fixed. After shooting Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb in Comanche County in 1874, Hardin fled Texas and headed east. Texas Ranger John B. Armstrong pursued Hardin and found him on a train outside Pensacola, Florida several years later. Armstrong overtook Hardin after Hardin got his pistols tangled up in his suspenders when he tried to draw. He was brought back to Comanche County, Texas, and put on trial before a jury of twelve citizens of the county. Bob Dylan, in his Hardin song, sang that “no crime held against him could they prove.” That is also incorrect. Unlike Jesse James and Billy the Kid, who were both gunned down, John Wesley Hardin, who killed many people in multiple states, was convicted of murder in 1878 and sentenced to prison in Huntsville, Texas.  The historical documents that record the true story about the trial and sentencing of Hardin are at risk of being stolen, destroyed, or lost . . .  The Hardin records are not unique. Thousands of other Records are stored in hundreds of Texas district and county clerk archives. Some of these facilities are excellent; some of these Records are preserved, or in the process of being preserved. But many of the oldest Records – especially those that date back to the Republic of Texas, early statehood, or the Civil War – are at risk of being lost forever, unless measures are soon taken to help district and county clerks protect them.

Accessing and Reusing Copyright Government Records

Accessing and Reusing Copyright Government Records

John Gilchrist

10 Law and Justice Journal 213 (2010)

Full text available at:

http://www.law.qut.edu.au/files/4.Access_and_Reuse_GILCHRIST_3.pdf

Abstract

The common policy objectives in modern liberal democracies of promoting open and accountable government and of preserving national culture and heritage are reflected in the provision of access to, and the preservation of unpublished and published works held by government. A wide spectrum of social enquiry is in whole or in part dependent on these government preserved holdings.

The policy objectives in Australia are manifested in two ways. One is in government archival practices and laws. The other is in the Australian Copyright Act 1968 facilitating access to, and the preservation of, unpublished and published works held by archives and libraries. While preservation of these works and the costs associated with it are in themselves a recognition of the public interest in accessing works held by archives and libraries, existing laws and practices facilitating access should be reviewed in light of technological changes in way we access, create and communicate works and in light of further moves towards openness in government.

This article outlines present archival practices and laws in Australia, and the scope of Copyright Act provisions,  before turning to reform. The focus will be on the Australian federal sphere.