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Preserving the past

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In the Pike County courthouse, the staff commonly refers to the basement as the dungeon.

It is not a place many like to venture, with its stone walls, concrete floors and bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling, but the space has proven to be a handy repository for court filings and county records. Decade after decade, boxes of papers were carted down to the basement and left, rarely sorted through and cleaned out.

Not surprising, the basement became cramped with boxes, so county officials called the Division of State Court Administration to ask for help.

ICPR-16-1col.jpg Conservation technician for the Indiana State Archives Elizabeth Hague unbinds a book of Indiana Senate bills from the late 1800s (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

“We just wanted the public to be able to view and have access to records they didn’t know existed, and we also wanted to clean out the courthouse because we didn’t have room,” said Amy Hook, Pike County deputy clerk.

Tucked away in boxes and cabinets in county courthouses across the state is Indiana’s history. These original records trace births, marriages and deaths, property ownership, military service, and disputes that landed in court.

Divisions within the Commission on Public Records, like the state archives and the county records division, along with the Indiana Supreme Court’s Division of State Court Administration work together

to identify and preserve the important records. These efforts can be as mundane as going through boxes in a courthouse basement or as painstaking as repairing a tear in a 100-year-old map with Japanese mending tissue and special glue.

Included in Indiana Court Administrative Rules is an entire section detailing the schedule for retaining judicial records. The questions of which documents are to be kept permanently, which documents are retained at the county and which get transferred to the state are addressed in the retention schedule.

However, county officials may hesitate at the thought of tossing an old document or record book into the trash. And the result of not knowing what to do with all those papers, Hook said, is a flood of documents and little knowledge of what’s there.

Saving it for the next 100 years

Tom Jones, records manager at the Division of State Court Administration, fields the calls from the county clerks and organizes the on-site visits to help local communities determine what to keep, how to keep it and what to send to the state archives or local historical society.

ICPR-1-1col.jpg Court files, judgment books and dockets from state and county courts are among the holdings in the Indiana State Archives. Many of the books and documents are handwritten in cursive script (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

During 2013, Jones made 67 visits to 31 Indiana counties. He has ventured down into basements, climbed up into attics and opened boxes and drawers to see what is inside.

Some requests for help come at a time of crisis when a county courthouse has caught fire or endured a flood. Jones and his colleagues will arrive soon after the disaster and help salvage what they can.

A fair amount of the materials Jones has reviewed has been generated by the local courts. Civil and criminal case files, Jones said, can tell the story of a specific period of time. He has seen early filings that were dominated by injuries from trains give way to auto accidents, underscoring the eclipse of the once mighty railroad by the horseless carriage.

“You definitely can see the legal history reflecting the general history of those times,” Jones said.

Recently, at the Indiana State Archives, Jim Corridan, state archivist, set an oblong box on the table and flipped the lid. Inside was a stack of Indiana Supreme Court case files from the 1800s. The grayish-brown papers had been tri-folded into tight bundles and the top edges were smeared with black dust, remnants from the former coal-heating system in the Statehouse.

Coupled with sorting and identifying historical documents, the state archives and state court administration preserve the records so they can be accessed not only today but also in the next century.

The project to preserve the Supreme Court’s case files was started under retired Chief Justice Randall Shepard and continued by Chief Justice Brent Dickson. An annual appropriation from the Supreme Court of $8,500 funds the preservation work.

To date, the state archives office has been able to refurbish and catalogue more than 30,000 filings from 1817 into the 1880s. A “few thousand” more Bankers boxes of case files, dating up to 1913, are on hand, and the archives is awaiting another 50 years worth of files to be transferred from the Supreme Court.

More than having a historical and research value, these files are caselaw, pointed out Corridan, who is also the director of the Indiana Commission on Public Records. They are precedent and still could be cited in opinions from the court in modern times.

The process to conserve the case files begins with a sponge to wipe off the dust and dirt. Then the papers are unfolded, often for the first time in more than a century, and placed under a brick to flatten them. In the conservation lab, experts will coax deteriorated pages apart and mend tears in the paper.

County books recording the local court judgments and orders as well as the docket are also housed at the state archives, kept on high shelves in the “stacks room” which has carefully controlled temperature and humidity. Some of those books can be as long as 2 feet and weigh as much as 30 pounds. Turning back the beautiful ornate cover will often reveal artfully flowing cursive handwriting.

Finding buried treasures

ICPR-7-15col.jpg The Indiana Supreme Court case files from the 1800s were trifolded and bound with ribbon. (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

The very paper used for the files, records and order books can slow the progress of Jones and his colleagues as they comb through documents in county courthouses. Especially with high quality and very expensive paper, like that from the mid-1800s, clerks were inspired to use every inch of available writing space, which means the state workers have to look beyond the cover and first pages when examining a government artifact. What may appear to contain just marriage licenses, for example, could also hold other records.

Going into the far reaches of the courthouses, Jones has discovered the remains of rodents and pigeons. But sometimes the hunts have yielded unexpected treasures.

In the Pike County courthouse’s basement, the staff found an enlistment book from the Civil War, a registry of widows and orphans, and the jail record from the 1800s which lists inmate crimes such as stealing a horse, pregnancy and tramp.

At the state archives, the Supreme Court files typically contain the transcript and briefs from the case as well as the order. However, some files have harbored a few cities’ original plat maps and one included the drawings from the 1870s of the courthouse in Marion County.

Perhaps most interesting has been the discovery of cases that, as Corridan described, have been lost to history. Among those forgotten court disputes are those dating into the 1820s and 1830s that concerned slaves and their Indiana owners.

“We’ll find some really intriguing things in the file that no one knows about,” the archivist said.

Shortly after he was elected clerk of the Owen Circuit Court three years ago, Jeff Brothers was shown the basement of the Owen County courthouse. There sat boxes and boxes of records and government papers likely dating from the inception of the county.

Upstairs the courthouse would soon begin making room for another Circuit judge who would produce more documents that would have to be stored somewhere.

Local officials already had been easing the overload by moving some of the documents to the local armory, and Brothers was devoting what time he could – even evenings and weekends – to sorting through the cardboard containers.

Ultimately, Brothers wants to retrieve some of what has been housed off-site back to the courthouse, but he does not want to do that by loading up the dumpster. Even when a plumbing repair flooded the basement, he did not throw things away but took batches of records to the armory and laid them out on the floor to dry.

In about a week, Brothers will get some help in his efforts to catalogue and preserve – Jones will be visiting.

“I believe in history,” Brothers said, explaining his drive to preserve the past. “History is an amazing thing to me. By doing away with something, you’re taking that (history) away from future generations.”•

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Indiana Supreme Court case records online

The Indiana State Archives is creating a database of case files from the Indiana Supreme Court. Since the project started about 10 years ago, the archives office has entered more than 30,000 documents, dating from 1817 to 1882, into the database. Plans call for the work to continue until every case file has been catalogued.
The online database provides information on the county and court where the case originated, date of the Supreme Court hearing, parties involved and the disposition.

The database is available at http://incite.in.gov/dataentryapp/public.aspx


 

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  1. I like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  5. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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