G U I D E    T O    G E N E A L O G I C A L    M A T E R I A L S     
in the New Orleans Public Library's Louisiana Division & City Archives     

          A P P E N D I X   D :   The Orleans Parish Court System

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Appendix A: Ordering By Mail
Appendix B: Genealogical Periodicals
Appendix C: Soundex/Miracode System
Appendix D: Orleans Parish Civil Courts

The City Archives holds the original records of the Orleans Parish civil (1804-1926) and criminal (1830-1932) courts. The Genealogical Society of Utah has filmed most of the records from these courts that they considered to have genealogical significance. The remaining records are unfilmed. These unfilmed records are not always available on demand. Some records require 24-hour humidification before they can be viewed. Researchers wishing to view unfilmed court records must be registered to use the original materials and consult with one of the archivists.

  For indexes, finding aids, and links to available digital versions for a number of the courts below, visit the Orleans Parish Court Records page at neworleanspubliclibrary.org/inv/courts.htm.

  Information on ordering court records by mail can be found at neworleanspubliclibrary.org/info/louinfo/courtfee.htm.

Civil Courts

Louisiana has gone through several very different court systems since its purchase by the United States. The periods covered by each system and the courts active during those periods are as follows:

Territorial Period (1803-1812)

Governor's Court (1803)
This court was established by Governor Claiborne to handle cases still pending in Spanish Courts. Except for several items, the records are no longer extant.

Court of Pleas (1804)
On December 30, 1803 William C. C. Claiborne, acting as Governor General and Intendant of the Province of Louisiana, established a Court of Pleas for the City of New Orleans. The Court was to consist of not less than seven justices who were to be appointed by the Governor and to serve at his pleasure. It was to meet at least once each week. Three justices were deemed sufficient to form a court, with a majority of those present required for a decision to be rendered. Claiborne gave the Court jurisdiction in all suits not exceeding $3000. He also provided that justices would have summary power to make individual decisions in civil matters in which the value at stake was less than twenty dollars. In addition, Claiborne gave the justices power to rule on minor criminal offenses. Disputed matters valued at more than $500 were appealable to the Governor.

Only the minute book has survived.

County Court (1804-1807)
The County Court (covering the Territorial County of Orleans) was given jurisdiction in civil matters involving debts of more than fifty dollars or injuries to persons or property of less than one hundred dollars. The court also had jurisdiction in all non-capital criminal matters; that is, those which could not be punished with death or which were not exclusively within the jurisdiction of a superior court.

Superior Court (1804-1813)
The Superior Court was created in March 1804 (Act 284, 1st Session) to replace the Court of Pleas, which had been established under the temporary government of Territory of Orleans following the Louisiana Purchase. During the territorial period, the Superior Court was roughly analogous to today's Louisiana Supreme Court, i.e., operating as a court of last resort. The records of this court have not been microfilmed. Due to the fragile condition of many of the records, photocopies may not be made from the original records.

Court of Probates (1804-1846)
The Court of Probates was established in 1804 to provide for the judicial supervision of the disposition of the estates left by deceased property owners in Orleans Parish. The court ceased operation in 1846. The records of this court are available on microfilm.

City Court (1807-1813)
The City Court for the parish of the city of New Orleans was established by act of the Louisiana Legislature on March 31, 1807 with the same jurisdiction as had been given to the previous County Court for New Orleans. In addition to criminal matters and civil causes for amounts under $100, the Court also heard insolvency suits in which debtors petitioned for protection from the demands of their creditors. The records of this court have not been microfilmed.

First State System (1813-1846)

Court of Probates (1804-1846) See above. The Court of Probates continued from the Territorial period.

Parish Court (1813-1846)
The Parish Court had civil jurisdiction within Orleans Parish concurrent with that of the District Court of the First Judicial District. The Parish Court also had the same criminal jurisdiction over slaves as had been enjoyed by the City Court of New Orleans prior to 1813. Suits having to do with family matters can be found in this court, as well as petitions to emancipate slaves. All records of this court are available on microfilm.

First Judicial District Court (1813-1846)
This court (sometimes referred to as the District Court or the First District Court) had geographical jurisdiction over the First Judicial District of the State, including Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, and (beginning in 1825) Jefferson Parishes. The court originally had both civil and criminal original jurisdiction as well as jurisdiction in appeals from the Parish Courts in its constituent parishes (excepting Orleans, whose appeals went directly to the Louisiana Supreme Court). In 1818 the Court's criminal jurisdiction was given to a new Criminal Court of the City of New Orleans which, in the following year, was enlarged to cover the entire district. The genealogically significant records of this court are available on microfilm.

Commercial Court (1839-1846)
This court had concurrent jurisdiction with the already existing Parish Court and First Judicial District Court, except that the Commercial Court could hear no case involving ownership or possession of land, ownership of slaves, domestic relations, tort suits, or eminent domain expropriations. Parties were allowed to transfer actions pending in the existing courts to Commercial Court as a way of relieving the burden on the existing courts created by the large number and technical complexity of commercial disputes arising in the city. The records of this court have not been microfilmed.

Second State System (1846-1880)

During this period, New Orleans had a system of numbered district courts (be aware, however, that these were not geographical districts – each of the courts had jurisdiction over the entire parish of Orleans). Prior to 1853, the courts handled all types of civil matters; after 1853, each court handled suits of a specific type, as described below.

First District Court (1846-1880)
Criminal jurisdiction. The records of this court are filmed in their entirety prior to 1853. After 1853, when the court assumed exclusive criminal jurisdiction, the records are not microfilmed. The docket books for this court are available on microfilm, as are the few extant index volumes.

Second District Court (1846-1880)
Jurisdiction over probate matters. Cases pending in the Court of Probates were transferred to this court in 1846. The cases are available on microfilm. A published index is also available.

Third District Court (1846-1880)
Jurisdiction over family matters. Cases pending in the Parish Court were transferred to this court in 1846. The “genealogically significant” records of this court, with indexes, are available on microfilm.

Fourth District Court (1846-1880)
General civil jurisdiction. Cases pending in Commercial Court were transferred to this court in 1846. The “genealogically significant” records of this court, with indexes, are available on microfilm.

Fifth District Court (1846-1880)
General civil jurisdiction. Cases pending in First Judicial District Court were transferred to this court in 1846. The “genealogically significant” suits, with indexes, are available on microfilm.

Sixth District Court (1853-1880)
This court was created to handle cases pending in the City of Lafayette, when it was annexed to Orleans Parish. After several years, the court assumed more general jurisdiction. The “genealogically significant” suits, with indexes, are available on microfilm.

Seventh District Court (1868-1872)
This specific jurisdiction of this court is unclear. Some cases from Third District Court are often included in the court’s records. The “genealogically significant” suits, with indexes, are available on microfilm.

Eighth District Court (1870-1872)
This court was created during Reconstruction and may have been created to handle disputed election cases. The “genealogically significant” suits, with indexes, are available on microfilm.

Superior District Court (1872-1877)
This court contains a great many tax-related cases. In many cases, no suit record was generated, but only a page in a tax judgment book; the judgment book contains no details, since the cases were cut-and-dried proceedings in which the City or State sued someone for non-payment of taxes. Any “genealogically significant” suits, with indexes, are available on microfilm.

Third (and current) State System (1880-present)

In 1880, all of the separate civil courts were replaced by a single Civil District Court. The new court kept separate dockets onto which cases were entered according to classes.

Civil District Court (1880-present)
Cases of “genealogical significance” have been microfilmed, along with the index to the general docket of the court and the court’s judicial record books.

Docket 1
This docket handled probate matters. These records, with separate indexes and docket books, are available on microfilm.

Docket 2 – 4
These dockets handled general suits. For the most part, these records have not been microfilmed.

Dockets 5
This docket handled divorce matters. These records, with separate indexes and docket books are available on microfilm.

Criminal Courts

The City Archives holds the original records of the Orleans Parish criminal courts from 1830-1932. Even though information on ancestors might certainly be found among these records, the Genealogical Society of Utah did not consider them to be “genealogical,” and, therefore, did not microfilm them. Indexing to the criminal courts is not always available.

Missing Suit Records

There can be any number of reasons why a specific suit record may not be on the microfilm roll where it belongs. The Court of Probate records, especially those toward the beginning of the alphabet, can be particularly difficult to find. Not only are there no discrete filing numbers to use as guides, but there also is a lack of white space on the film to mark the end of one record and the beginning of the next. We strongly recommend that researchers be very thorough in any search of the Court of Probate records. If a given record can=t be found on the roll that it should be on, consider checking the roll just before and/or after. There are a very few Probate Court records that were transferred to new docket numbers in Civil District Court. A book listing Transferred Suit Records is available at the Louisiana Reference Desk [a film copy of the transferred record list is available as item 5 filed under call number VSG300 1872].

Some Second District Court records similarly were transferred to new locations in CDC. Sometimes the new docket number is noted on the microfilm, sometimes the record is shown to be missing, and sometimes it is simply not on the film and there is no on-film explanation. In the last instance researchers should still consult the Transferred Suit Record book noted above. If the record was not transferred to CDC and is not identified as missing on the film, ask an archivist or reference librarian to check the Second District Court Inventory (some original suit records were not microfilmed for one reason or another; staff can retrieve the original file in such instances). A similar Inventory is available for Civil District Court; it should be consulted if your record is not in its proper numerical place in the VT290 films.

Inevitably, some records are just plain missing. Even then, though, all is not necessarily lost – there are ways to reconstruct at least some of the lost data. If a record is missing, check into the following:

  • If it is a probate record, check to see if there was a will (by consulting the index to the Will Book [VRD410] for the year of death). If a notary public recorded the will, his acts (available at the New Orleans Notarial Archives) may include additional documents relating to the probate or succession proceeding.

  • For missing Civil District Court records from docket 1 or 5, refer to the Docket Book [VT350a for docket 1; VT350b for docket 5] entry for the number in question. If the docket entry refers to a Judicial Record Book (or JRB) volume and page number, look up the reference in VT_410 (where the letter in the blank corresponds to the Division of the Court; for example, VTC410 refers to a Judicial Record Book from Division C). The Judicial Record Book entry will include copies of key documents extracted from the original suit record.

  • For missing succession (and other) records from most other courts ask an archivist to retrieve the original Docket Book for the suit (if it is available). From the docket entry note the dates when petitions were filed and when orders and judgments were rendered. You can then look those dates up in the microfilmed Minute Books of the court and in some cases, but definitely not in all, find information on the judicial proceeding in question.

  • The suit may have been appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court [usually the docket entry will show this]. While the high court generally returned original suit records to the lower court, it may have caused a transcript of key documents to be recorded in its own files. The Louisiana Supreme Court records are housed at the Department of Archives, Earl K. Long Library, University of New Orleans.