When conducting genealogy research, most researchers gravitate to the usual sources, such as census records, wills and probate records, marriage records, military records, and immigration records. Another potential source for genealogical information that may not be apparent is legal opinions. Legal opinions are issued by courts in resolving lawsuits. The opinion will generally describe the parties, lay out the legal issues and the facts (as determined by either the judge or the jury), apply the law to the facts, and resolve the parties’ dispute(s). Legal opinions are usually issued by appellate courts, but may be issued by trial courts as well. Situations that may result in a lawsuit, and potentially a published legal opinion, include disputes over land, contracts or business dealings, crimes, or personal injuries. Our ancestors can show up in a legal opinion in a variety or capacities – as a named party to the lawsuit, as a witness, as a litigating attorney, or as the judge. Legal opinions can provide a great deal of information and can also provide a look into the everyday lives of our ancestors.
Nearly all U.S. legal opinions have been transcribed and are available on online searchable databases. In the past, these databases were generally only available to attorneys and other professionals and were very expensive. Two of the more prominent online databases are Westlaw and Lexis/Nexis. Other, less expensive online databases have popped up over the last few years, such as LoisLaw, Casemaker, and FastCase. With the advent of Google Scholar, there is now a free online legal database. Google Scholar is essentially a normal Google search that is narrowly focused on legal opinions. One caveat with this resource is that it may be difficult to distinguish persons with very common surnames. When searching for ancestors with common names, it may be helpful to narrow your search by adding geographic locations (particularly counties) where your ancestor resided. For instance if you had a relative named John Smith that resided in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, an effective search may be “John Smith” AND “Mecklenburg County” AND “North Carolina.”
To provide an example of a successful research experience involving legal opinions, I performed an online search for one of my indirect ancestors – Christian F. Liebke (the brother-in-law of my great-great-great grandfather, Christian Ernst Letzig). I knew that Liebke and Letzig had operated a successful lumber mill/logging operation in St. Louis. When I ran a search for “Liebke” I discovered nearly a dozen legal opinions from courts in Missouri and Arkansas. One of the cases was even appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court (Thomas v. Liebke, 116 U.S. 605 (1886)), where Liebke was victorious. After reviewing all of the legal opinions, I gained a greater understanding of Liebke’s business and learned that he operated one of the largest lumber mills on the Mississippi River.