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Find the judge, find the court

It was a fairly typical post that landed in The Legal Genealogist‘s Facebook feed, a day or two or three ago.

A genealogist had found a newspaper article about a rascal of an ancestor but wasn’t able to find the court record of the case in which the ancestor had been involved.

But the article provided a key clue the researcher hadn’t considered.

It contained the name of the judge who presided over the case.

And that’s often the one piece we need to find the record we’re looking for.

screen capture, FJC.GOV

In the case of this particular rascal, the article noted that he had been a federal prisoner. That makes the research simple: whenever we have the name of a federal judge, finding the court is as easy as plugging the name of the judge — Willard in this case — into the search box for the Biographical Directory of Article III Federal Judges, 1789-present,1 part of the presentation of historical materials on the website of the Federal Judicial Center.2

In this case, the judge was identified as Willard — and there’s only ever been one federal judge by that name: Charles Andrew Willard, born May 21, 1857, in St. Johnsbury, VT, and died March 13, 1914, in Minneapolis, MN. He was nominated as a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota by President William Taft in 1909, and served until his death in 1914. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Boston University School of Law, he’d been in private practice in Vermont and Minnesota from 1879 to 1901, when he became an Associate Justice of Supreme Court of the Philippine Islands, a position he held until being named a district judge.3

Which tells us to look for the underlying case in the records of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota — something we can do by heading over to the website of the U.S. National Archives and checking the Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States to see where the archival records for that court are today.

Now you know it isn’t always going to be that easy.

First off, even in the federal system, the biographical index only includes judges nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate — the so-called Article III judges because their offices are created under Article III of the Constitution. Lesser federal judges, like Magistrate Judges and their predecessors, the United States Commissioners,4 aren’t included.

So for those officers we’re usually going to have to do a web search, using our favorite search engine and/or any of the digitized book services (Google Books, Internet Archive and HathiTrust) to try to identify the judge and where that judge was working at the time. Regrettably, even the Official Register of the United States doesn’t list them.

And of course when we’re looking for a state or local level judge, it gets even more complicated. If the article we begin with doesn’t tell us what court the judge served on, we may need to begin by looking for other newspaper articles from the same time and place to try to get more information to work with: a full name of the judge perhaps, or some information about the court (the name of the court or the exact location where the judge was working at the time).

State court judge searches will also take us to our favorite search engine and the digitized book services as well — but there is one specific search that may help. Check and see whether there’s a published History of the Bench and Bar (or some similarly named publication) for the time and place. A quick Google Books search using “history bench and bar” as the search term and the 19th century as the time frame turns up volumes for Wisconsin (1882),5 Ohio (1897),6, Missouri (1878)7 and more.

Once we identify the court, we can then work with the appropriate archives to locate the records if they survive.

So our process is one of judging the records: we start by finding the judge.

Find the judge, and we find the court.

Find the court, and we can find the records.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Judging the records,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 3 May 2022).


  1. Biographical Directory of Article III Federal Judges, 1789-present,” Federal Judicial Center ( : accessed 3 May 2022).
  2. Ibid., “Federal Judicial History.”
  3. Ibid., “Biographical Directory of Article III Federal Judges, 1789-present,” entry for Willard, Charles Andrew.
  4. See generally Judy G. Russell, “The Magistrate Judge,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 22 Mar 2013 ( : accessed 3 May 2022).
  5. Parker McCobb Reed, The Bench and Bar of Wisconsin (Milwaukee: P.M. Reed, 1882).
  6. George I. Reed, E.O. Randall and C.T. Greeve, editors, Bench and Bar of Ohio, 2 vols. (Chicago: Century Publishing, 1897).
  7. William Van Ness Bay, Reminiscences of the Bench and Bar of Missouri (St. Louis: F.H. Thomas & Co., 1878).
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