By Richard Gilreath, Reference Archivist
In an earlier post, we wrote about the recovery and preservation of Supreme Court case files removed from state custody. Today, we highlight recent efforts by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) to improve public access to early Texas Supreme Court case files.
TSLAC holds Texas Supreme Court case files dating from 1841 to 2004. Case files that date between 1841 and 1892 are known as M case files. These files are known as M case files because the Court renumbered them in the 1940s with an M prefix to resolve problems caused by duplicate numbering systems. These case files include Supreme Court cases from the Republic era, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and cover important topics from the 19th century, including slavery, property, and the rights of women, freed people of color, and other minorities. They document the workings of government, matters of business and law, and the experiences of past Texans.
Digitizing the M case files makes these records available to the public through any internet-connected device, while also preserving the original documents from regular exposure and handling. Early case files are fragile due to pest destruction, iron gall ink deterioration, water damage, the nature of the materials (such as “onion skin” paper), and the age of the documents. Below, we will go over the Supreme Court M case files available on the Texas Digital Archive (TDA) and ways to access M case files.
Texas Supreme Court Records on the TDA
The Supreme Court records that have been digitized are available on the TDA. If you need help navigating or finding a case file, try using our webpage about accessing Supreme Court case files on the TDA.
M case files provide information about the lives of Texans between 1841 to 1892. Many of these files are available on the TDA, such as M-119, Maria Jesus Delgado de Smith v. Samuel Smith. This file provides details regarding Maria Jesus Delgado de Smith’s 1844 petition to the Supreme Court of Texas to be made the executor of her late husband’s will. While not all M case files have been added to the TDA, we are scanning and uploading files regularly.
These case files can vary in length, as sometimes only portions of a case file survived. As we discussed in our previous blog post about recovering Supreme Court case files, sometimes we recover portions of case files that had been lost or stolen.
TSLAC has also digitized records helpful in finding case files and providing procedural details about them. The records available on the TDA include dockets and indexes.
Researchers can review the direct and reverse index to M case files for the names of the parties, the old case file number, the M case file number (if one was assigned), a citation to the published opinion in the Texas Reports, and the filing date. The Texas Reports are also available through the Portal to Texas History. Some card files also cite the South Western Reporter. Not all case files from this time period survived and received M case file numbers, so the citation to the opinions can help find published information when the case files have been lost.
Dockets from this period are also available on the TDA. Dockets provide the original number of the case, the attorneys, the parties, the county filed in, and notes about actions that occurred related to the case. The Court also sometimes stamped the dockets with M case file numbers.
Both dockets and indexes can be used to locate an M case file number, which is necessary to locate the case file. Our Texas Supreme Court case files from this period are organized by M case file number, on both the Texas Digital Archive and in our Austin, Texas, facility.
Other Texas Supreme Court records from this period are not available through the TDA and are still accessible through the original paper records. This includes the minutes of the Court, indexes of attorneys registered to practice before the Court, and opinions. These paper records are described in more detail in the finding aid.
Searching for Supreme Court Case Files
A search tool to locate Supreme Court case files on the TDA may help with locating case files. You can search all of the case files that are have been uploaded onto the TDA, by party, M case file number, presiding judge of the District Court, originating county, and more. The cause of action field identifies the legal basis for a lawsuit, such as assault, debt, and probate. This allows you to locate multiple cases on a particular issue.
As a reminder, not all case files in our holdings are available on the TDA yet. We are still scanning and uploading case files dated 1841-1892 onto the TDA, so if a case isn’t available, it is a good idea to check with us.
Remember, if a case does not have an M case file number in the index or dockets, the case file could be missing or stolen. We maintain a list of missing M case files on our website, which is updated biannually. If a case file is missing or stolen, the published opinion in the Texas Reports may provide information about the circumstances of the case. Many volumes of the Texas Reports are available electronically through HathiTrust.
Please contact the reference desk for information about case files. Whether you need assistance locating one on the TDA, confirming the location of one that is not on the TDA, or help with restricted case files (dated after 1943), our reference staff are ready to help. You can contact the reference desk at firstname.lastname@example.org.