Washington Court Records
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This entry was originally written by Dwight A. Radford for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
The Organic Act of 1853, which created Washington Territory, also established a judicial system. Judicial power was vested in the state supreme court, district court, probate court (see Washington Probate Records), and justice court.
Washington Territory was divided into three judicial districts: eastern Washington was assigned to the First Judicial District, southwestern Washington to the second, and northwestern Washington to the third. In 1886 the Fourth Judicial District was created for the central Washington area.
The three District Court Justices (four after 1886) sat as the Supreme Court for Washington Territory. The supreme court heard all appeals from the district court. The supreme court met annually in Olympia at a time set by the Territorial Legislature. Cases from the state supreme court could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The district court had original jurisdiction in all cases arising under the U.S. Constitution and the laws of Washington Territory. This court heard cases in Chancery (Equity) and Admiralty. Admiralty cases related to offenses committed on the seas and disputes relating to maritime matters. The district court heard divorce cases until 1864, when the Territorial Legislature could grant legislative divorces as well. Documents filed with the district court include naturalizations, admission to the bar, and appointments and bonds of officials. The district court had appellate jurisdiction over probate (see Probate Records) and justice courts.
The justice court set up new counties and provided for the establishment of probate and justice courts. The justice court heard petty criminal and civil cases, where less than $100 in debt or damages was involved. Justices of the peace often heard the original complaint in a case and then referred the case to the district court due to lack of jurisdiction.
The Washington State Archives has a collection of 37,000 civil, criminal, and probate cases heard in Washington’s Territorial District Courts. Called Frontier Justice: Abstracts and Indexes to the Records of the Washington Territorial District Courts 1854–1889, it is indexed by plaintiffs and defendants. Access is through the Washington State Archives or the regional branches (see Archives, Libraries, and Societies). A printed and microfilm version with slightly different title, published in three volumes with four parts, is available at the FHL, however, it is not listed as available for circulation to Family History Centers.
The Washington State court system is divided into the supreme court, superior courts, and district courts. The supreme court at Olympia exercises statewide geographic jurisdiction. The state supreme court has final appellate jurisdiction by review of cases from the superior courts. The court determines cases involving constitutional matters, matters of public interest, and those challenging the rule of law.
The twenty-eight supreme courts are the only trial courts of record in the state. They have unlimited jurisdiction. These courts have original jurisdiction over such matters as criminal cases, which includes felonies, misdemeanors, all juvenile matters, and appellate jurisdiction in cases from courts of limited jurisdiction. Superior court cases may be appealed to the state supreme court. Jury trials are available in all cases. Many superior court records are available on microfilm at the Washington State Archives.
Probate records are under the jurisdiction of the superior court, and many are available at the appropriate county courthouses, the state archives, or one of the branch archives.
The sixty-two district courts have limited jurisdiction in criminal cases concurrent with the superior courts regarding all misdemeanors and preliminary hearings for felony cases. Jury trials are available in both civil and criminal cases. Appeals are to the superior courts. The present district courts are not courts of record, and few archival records are held.