Select Page

The Legal Genealogist is thoroughly embarrassed.

Yesterday’s blog lamenting our newly-acquired headaches in finding federal court records due to the relocation of some records to a different National Archives repository missed part of the issue.

Yes, as the blog emphasized, to find the records of the federal courts, we have to understand geography: which court records are now kept where.1

But — as reader Richard Belz reminded me — we also have to understand history.

Here’s why.

When the Constitution was ratified in 1789, it provided for only one court by name — the Supreme Court — and authorized “such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”

The first “inferior courts” were created by the Judiciary Act of 1789 — 13 district courts mostly for admiralty and maritime cases, and three United States circuit courts (two Supreme Court Justices and the district judge) functioning mostly as higher-level trial courts with limited appellate jurisdiction.2

The records of these early circuit courts are in Record Group 21, Records of the District Courts of the United States. So, for example, the records of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey and the United States Circuit Court for the District of New Jersey are all in the same place: the National Archives in New York City.

Although there were many changes in the courts over the years — creating new districts, adding to the number of circuits, even increasing the number of justices serving on the Supreme Court, the basic structure of the federal courts remained the same until the establishment of the Circuit Courts of Appeals in 1891.3 That created four levels of courts: the District Courts for lower-level trials; the Circuit Courts for higher-level trials and some appeals; the Circuit Courts of Appeals for other appeals; and the Supreme Court.

Then in 1911, the old trial-level circuit courts were abolished.4 Under the Constitution and that 1911 act, the court structure was streamlined: District Courts handled the trials; appeals from the District Courts went to the Circuit Court of Appeals covering the states in which those District Courts sat; and appeals from the Circuit Courts of Appeals went to the Supreme Court.5

And it’s the records of this intermediate appeals court — the Circuit Court of Appeals — that are in Record Group 276 and getting moved around.

But there’s more history than that if we need to find specific records.

Because the boundaries of those Circuits have changed since 1911, and some of those boundary changes do affect where you’re going to find the records today — at least until the National Archives finishes moving all of Record Group 276 to the NARA repository in Kansas City.

circuit borders

The first big change was in 1929, when the Eighth Circuit was divided and the new Tenth Circuit was created, with Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, and South Dakota staying in the Eighth Circuit and Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming going to the new Tenth Circuit.6 So if you need a Colorado record from, say, 1915, it wouldn’t be with the Tenth Circuit records; it’d be with the Eighth Circuit records. That won’t affect getting to the records, because the records of both circuits are now held in Kansas City, though saying what series the case is in will be important.

Likewise for the records of the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia7 — whether early or late, all of its records are now in Kansas City.

But the last change is a headache. In 1980, the Fifth Circuit was split in two: Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi remained in the Fifth Circuit; Florida, Georgia and Alabama became the new Eleventh Circuit.8

And that’s where the problem is.

Because the records of a Florida case on appeal in 1961 and the records of a Florida case on appeal in 1981 are going to be in two different places.

In 1981, Florida was — and is today — in the Eleventh Circuit, and those records have been moved from NARA-Atlanta to NARA-Kansas City.

But in 1961, Florida was in the Fifth Circuit, and those records are still at NARA-Fort Worth. They won’t be moved to Kansas City for some time.

Ditto for Georgia and Alabama appeals: at NARA-Fort Worth while they were still part of the Fifth Circuit, but at NARA-Kansas City once the Eleventh Circuit was created.

Geography, yes.

But history too.

Sigh… what a genealogist has to learn to chase those records…

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “History too,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 14 Nov 2019).


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Going, going…,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 13 Nov 2019 ( : accessed 14 Nov 2019).
  2. “An Act to establish the Judicial Courts of the United States” (Judiciary Act of 1789), 1 Stat. 73 (24 Sep 1789).
  3. “An act to establish circuit courts of appeals and to define and regulate in certain cases the jurisdiction of the courts of the United States, and for other purposes,” 26 Stat. 826 (3 Mar 1891).
  4. An Act To codify, revise, and amend the laws relating to the judiciary, 36 Stat. 1087 (3 Mar 1911).
  5. There were a few exceptions where cases were appealed directly to the Supreme Court. Most of those exceptions no longer exist today.
  6. “An Act To … divide the eighth judicial circuit of the United States, and to create a tenth judicial circuit,” 45 Stat. 1346 (28 Feb 1929).
  7. See 50 Stat. 473 (5 July 1937) and 62 Stat. 869 (25 June 1948).
  8. “Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Reorganization Act of 1980,” 94 Stat. 1994 (14 Oct 1980).
Print Friendly, PDF & Email