Illinois Court Records
This entry was originally written by Carol L. Maki and Michael John Neill for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
As the first nation to colonize Illinois, France was also the first to organize its judiciary system. The commandant of Illinois, under the control of the governor of Louisiana, had jurisdiction for major criminal and civil cases, but appointed town judges for each settlement to handle lesser cases. The first court of which there is any record in Illinois is the Provincial Council, established in 1722 for the primary jurisdiction of civil and criminal cases.
Before statehood, the county court for all of what is now the state of Illinois was established in 1779 by Virginia for its “Illinois County.” The court functioned within a revised version of the French law but with the influence of the English common law. Being in debt would have resulted in a jury trial and imprisonment. Although Virginia relinquished their “Illinois County” to the United States in 1784, no legal form of government replaced Virginia’s for what became Illinois until the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The courts of quarter sessions existed from 1788 to 1805 and from 1809 to 1811. From 1788 to 1809 and from 1811 to 1818, the courts of common pleas were in effect. Orphans’ Courts existed from 1795 to 1805. Justice’s courts survived for only 1818, and circuit courts existed from 1795 to 1812 and from 1814 to 1818.
A system of circuit courts was established by the Illinois state constitution in 1818. These courts were held by circuit-riding justices of the Illinois Supreme Court, each circuit court covering one or more counties. Jurisdiction for these courts included criminal cases, civil suits for more than $20, appeals from the justices of the peace, and some naturalizations. Additional responsibilities have been added through the years, including local, county, and state judicial elections.
Today the clerk of each circuit court is responsible for a wide variety of activities, among them selection of juries, maintaining court records, recording probate actions, and filing reports. Twenty-one circuit courts presently serve the state. Records of the circuit courts remain with their respective clerks except for those that have been archived or otherwise stored.
County courts were established in 1845 for only Cook and Jo Daviess counties. Three years later a statewide county court system was created. At that time county courts handled only probate cases (see Illinois Probate Records) and misdemeanors. Between 1848 and 1870 in counties not yet organized, the county judge also headed county commissioner’s court, which served the administrative functions of running daily county operations.
The constitution change in 1870 provided for uniformity in all Illinois county courts, with the exception of Cook County, which continues to have a uniquely functioning circuit court. Jurisdiction for county courts was restricted to probate, apprenticeship, and tax delinquency. Two years later, the county courts received responsibility for misdemeanors and for hearing appeals from justices of the peace. Additional responsibilities were added frequently, including divorces and adoptions. However, in 1964 the county courts of Illinois were technically absorbed by the circuit court serving that county, with the county judge acting as an associate justice of the circuit court.
Some of the county court records before absorption have been transferred to the Illinois Regional Archives Depository (IRAD) collections. Records there for St. Clair County, for example, date back to the eighteenth century. A survey of some of these files indicates that the following types of cases may be included in county court records: criminal and common law proceedings, “feeble-minded” petitions and warrants of commitment, insanity proceedings and case files, bankruptcy inventories, and condemnation of property for railroad use. The depository’s collections include limited files from these courts, some predating 1800.
The highest level of judicial power in Illinois is the state supreme court. It exercises appellate jurisdiction except in those cases in which it exercises original jurisdiction. Beginning in 1818, the supreme court convened at the seat of the state government. From 1848 to 1897 it met at one of the state’s three grand divisions, and since 1897 it has held its sessions at Springfield. The Illinois State Archives holds numerous records from the state supreme court.