By John A. Lupton, Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission
In May 2022, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) awarded the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission a grant for $136,000 to digitize early Supreme Court case files.
The Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission will make available digital images of approximately 3,650 case files from 1819 to 1865 on a freely accessible and user-friendly website. Early Supreme Court cases covered many topics, including transportation, immigration, women and children, Abraham Lincoln, slavery, the Civil War, the rise of Chicago, and urban/rural disputes. The Commission expects the work to take 2 years with a publication date of June 2024.
The case files, which remain under the administrative control of the Clerk of the Supreme Court of Illinois, are housed at the Illinois State Archives. Currently, the case files are difficult to access because they are indexed on note cards and only by plaintiff, making subject searches impossible.
Technicians with the Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission will scan the documents in the case file then convert them to pdf format. Meanwhile, staff members will read the case files to create metadata that will become the basis of the search engine. Information captured will include the case name, parties, type of case, disposition, justices, attorneys, county of origin, terms of court, subject, and brief summary. All of the inputted metadata will be searchable, allowing for easy access to any researcher.
The final product will be a website, and users will be able to search a variety of entries, for example, “slavery.” The search engine will return x number of cases, and the user can click on those cases for more specific information about the case, including a brief summary that will provide a thumbnail sketch of the case. The research can continue a deeper dive into the case by examining pdf images of the documents in the case.
These Supreme Court case files are important because they provide valuable information about the development of Illinois for historical and genealogical research. With easier access to court records, public historians in museums and historical societies can use these records by incorporating them into exhibits and educational materials. Academic historians and graduate students can produce journal and magazine articles, books, and conference presentations.
Legal history encompasses the history of society, including economic, social, family, criminal, political, commercial, transportation, and real estate, among others. This collection of court records will help students and researchers understand the past, as well as inform many of today’s most pressing issues.