Using Minnesota District Court Records
Minnesota's district courts create records of value to family historians, scholars, local historians, and other researchers.
District court records are arranged by the county in which the case action took place and are organized by records series (for example, case files, registers of actions, judgment books, and minutes). Holdings at the Minnesota Historical Society can be found in the library catalog. Search by the name of county plus the term "district court" (e.g. Dakota County District Court).
As Minnesota's basic trial courts of original jurisdiction, the state's district courts hear all types of civil and criminal cases.
- Civil cases involve disputes between private citizens, governmental bodies, businesses, and organizations. They may concern personal or property rights, allegations of wrong-doing by one party against another or against a governmental body, disputed real or personal property claims, contract or payment disputes, marriage dissolutions (divorces), and adoptions. One or more plaintiffs bring an action by filing a summons and complaint, a document detailing the nature of the complaint and summoning one or more defendants to the court to answer to the complaint. Both sides may present evidence before a judge or jury. The judge or jury will render a judgment deciding the merits of the case. Frequently, this judgment will result in the award of monetary payments to one party.
- Criminal cases concern allegations that an individual, business, or corporation has committed a crime by breaking a law. The government (usually the state but in the past, occasionally a city, village, or county) brings the action and acts as the plaintiff. The accused is the defendant. Criminal cases range from serious felonies (for example, murder, rape, robbery, arson, burglary, kidnapping, that are punishable by confinement in a state correctional facility and/or payment of fines) to gross misdemeanors (for example, multiple driving-while-intoxicated offenses, that are punishable by confinement in a local jail and/or payment of fines) to petty misdemeanors (such as writing bad checks and parking tickets, that are punishable by payment of a fine). The case usually begins with an indictment, which might have been issued by a grand jury or asked for by a county attorney. Each party may present evidence before a judge or jury, which then renders a verdict or sentence.
- Case Files are supposed to contain all documents filed
in a specific case. If a case went to trial, was appealed to a higher
court, or resulted in an incarceration in a state correctional facility,
a transcript of the trial may have been produced. The transcript may be
very large and may not be physically filed with the other case documents.
Because of this physical separation, many transcripts no longer exist.
Researchers should be aware that transcripts were not produced for most
cases. Case files are usually numbered sequentially based on when the
initial action was begun. In the nineteenth century, a combination of
letters and numbers may have been used to identify individual case files.
Initially, civil and criminal files may have been filed in one sequence.
Most counties, however, ultimately separated civil and criminal files
into separate series, separately numbered. In some large counties, separate
filing systems may have been created for various categories of civil files.
Many counties have transferred early civil and criminal case files to the Minnesota Historical Society. Generally, the Society accepts case files through about 1950 from the 87 district courts around the state.
- Beginning in 1885, district courts were mandated to create Plaintiff/Defendant Indexes to Case Files, which include the names of the plaintiff and defendant, arranged somewhat alphabetically, and the case file number assigned to that case. Usually separate volumes were created for plaintiffs and defendants. Some court administrators retroactively indexed case files back to the beginning of their county in this manner. Most plaintiff/defendant indexes remain in the custody of the court administrator in the county. A few counties have transferred some of their plaintiff/defendant indexes to the Minnesota Historical Society, either in the original or on microfilm. Researchers may have to contact the court administrator in order to get the case file number so that the case files, even those that have been transferred to the Minnesota Historical Society, can be accessed. Indexing procedures varied from county to county and from time period to time period. In criminal cases, some courts indexed all criminal plaintiffs under "S" for "State of Minnesota". Civil cases that did not have a plaintiff or defendant (formation of judicial districts, changes of names, business dissolutions, etc.) are frequently indexed under "I" for "In the matter of…".
- Registers of Actions, frequently separated into registers of civil actions and registers of criminal actions, contain a record of the opening of each case and a recording of each document filed in the case either by a disputing party or by the court. Frequently the registers will include the case file number, thereby providing an alternative reference to the plaintiffs/defendants indexes. Although the register entries are very brief and generally contain little data, they provide a framework for the history of the case, its participants, and whether or not it proceeded through court action to a resolution. For criminal actions, the registers often contain a summary of the final verdict. These record books usually date from the establishment of the court system within the county. Legislation required their creation until 1982. Many registers of actions volumes have their own indexes within each volume. A few counties have transferred their registers of actions to the Minnesota Historical Society, either in the original or on microfilm.
- Judgment Books, or judgment records, were statutorily mandated from territorial times until 1982. These volumes contain a transcript of the judgment from most civil cases for which a formal judgment was issued and may include a reference to the case file number. Frequently these volumes are indexed. The judgment books do not include criminal cases. The vast majority of judgment books for Minnesota district courts are available at the Minnesota Historical Society.
- Judgment Dockets contain a record of monetary awards that the court issued in civil cases and records of payments on those awards. The dockets are generally arranged alphabetically by debtor. Many district courts have transferred their pre-1950 judgment dockets to the Minnesota Historical Society.
- Indictment Books contain a record of individuals charged with crimes. Criminal indictments may have been issued by a grand jury or authorized by a county attorney based on information provided to the court (termed "indictment on information"). These volumes usually are indexed and can provide evidence that a case file may have existed for a particular case. Grand jury indictment records generally begin about 1881, although such indictments have been issued since territorial times, and usually cease about 1982; indictment on information records generally date from the late 1910s or 1920s. Many district courts have transferred their indictment books to the Minnesota Historical Society.
Most district court records in the Minnesota Historical Society are open to unrestricted use. Certain categories of case files, especially adoption files less than 100 years old and some paternity case files, have restricted access and special access procedures. The staff of the library can assist patrons with these special conditions.
Researchers will find that court documents frequently refer to a judicial district as well as a county. In Minnesota, one or more counties are grouped into judicial districts (for example, Sixth Judicial District, which covers Carlton, Cook, Lake, and St. Louis counties) for administrative functions, like the assignment of judges to particular cases. Although these judicial district designations appear on court records, judicial districts do not affect the creation and storage of records, which remains solely based on the county in which the court action occurred.
District courts were established in Minnesota counties shortly after the formation and organization of each county. Other courts have also existed in Minnesota's history. The Minnesota Supreme Court, the Minnesota Court of Appeals, probate courts, county courts, municipal courts, justice of the peace courts, and federal courts have operated, and may continue to operate, in Minnesota. These courts may create different records and have different jurisdictions than the Minnesota district courts.
Not all district court records have been or will be transferred to the Minnesota Historical Society. If case files have been transferred, they will generally date only before 1950. Even if a series of case files has been transferred to the archives, all files may not be present. Some files may have been destroyed over time in accordance with records disposition laws; others may have been borrowed from the court and not returned; finally, natural disasters and poor administrative storage have taken their tolls. Most other district court series of records in the archives cease in the early 1980s.