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Finding New Jersey law

Reader Bonnie Brown is in luck.

Reading a great post by my friend and colleague Amy Johnson Crow (here), she has a lead on connecting her line to a Revolutionary War patriot.

One hitch: she needs to know the laws of descent at the time and in the place where a particular ancestor died.

“My issue,” she explained, “is finding the laws of descent for New Jersey in 1800.”

She added: “I did stumble upon an 1846 law of descent on the Rutgers law library website, but my decedent passed in 1800. How would I go about finding earlier versions of these laws?”

Yep, Bonnie is in luck.

Because she’s researching in New Jersey.

And because of the resources not only of The Legal Genealogist‘s alma mater, Rutgers Law School, but of the New Jersey State Library as well.

First off, let’s review some terminology. The sources we need when we’re trying to find the law of a time and a place are either — or both — the compiled laws of the jurisdiction (here, the state government) and the session laws.

Session laws are purely chronological publications of laws passed in each session of the legislature, with each enacted law added to the next and published in order.1 New Jersey’s session laws are available online for the period from 1776-1999 at the Rutgers Law Library’s New Jersey Session Laws Online page2 and at the New Jersey State Library’s New Jersey Session Laws page.3

Now you can imagine how hard it is to research the law when everything is arranged in purely chronological order. Finding this marriage law from 1776 and that marriage law from 1799 and that marriage law from 1801… bleah. And it wasn’t any easier for the lawyers or lawmakers. So, every so often, the legislatures would order the laws codified.

Codification is the “process of collecting and arranging the laws of a country or state into a code, i.e., into a complete system of positive law, scientifically ordered, and promulgated by legislative authority.”4 The codification, then, called compiled laws or codes or revised laws or whatever term is used in the particular jurisdiction, puts all of the related laws on one topic in one place so they can be more easily consulted and understood.

New Jersey officially compiled its statutes in 1800, 1811, 1820-21, 1833, 1845, 1877, 1895, 1910 and 1937.5 The current compilation is the New Jersey Statutes on the Legislature’s website.6

So… you can see why I said Bonnie is in luck. The statutes of New Jersey were compiled — codified — organized by topic — the very year that she needs to know what the law said. By looking at the list on the New Jersey State Library website, she can not only find Paterson’s 1800 compilation of the Laws of the State of New Jersey,7 but even a link to where she can find a digitized copy online, at Google Books.

If she thinks perhaps her decedent may have died a little later, and wants to check and see what changes the legislature may have made in the year or two after that 1800 codification, she can either check the session laws year by year or take a look at the 1805 volume linked on the New Jersey State Library website setting out The Public Laws of the State of New Jersey … Since the Revision by Judge Paterson in 1800.8 Again, it’s digitized and readily available online.

New Jersey research still requires us to do what The Legal Genealogist keeps insisting on: to understand the records, we have understand the law, and not the law in general, but the law at the specific time and in the specific place where the record was created.

But the resources available in the Garden State make it easy.

Bonnie is in luck in finding this answer. Hopefully she’ll have the same luck with linking to her patriot.


SOURCES

  1. See Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1086, “session laws.”
  2. New Jersey Session Laws Online,” 1776-1999, Rutgers Law Library (https://njlaw.rutgers.edu/ : accessed 16 Aug 2017).
  3. New Jersey Session Laws,” New Jersey Historical Laws, Constitutions and Charters, Law Library, New Jersey State Library (http://www.njstatelib.org/ : accessed 16 Aug 2017).
  4. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 216, “codification.”
  5. See “Historical Compilations of New Jersey Law,” New Jersey Historical Laws, Constitutions and Charters, Law Library, New Jersey State Library (http://www.njstatelib.org/ : accessed 16 Aug 2017).
  6. New Jersey General and Permanent Statutes, New Jersey Legislature (http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/ : accessed 16 Aug 2017).
  7. William Paterson, compiler, Laws of the State of New Jersey (Newark: Matthias Day, 1800); digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 16 Aug 2017).
  8. James Oram, compiler, The Public Laws of the State of New Jersey … Since the Revision by Judge Paterson in 1800 (Trenton : p.p., 1805); digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 16 Aug 2017).
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