Free the Law!

Harvard Law School announced on October 29, 2015 that it is digitizing its entire collection of United States case law and that it will make the collection available online for free, with help from its partner Ravel Law. Its ENTIRE collection! Free and searchable, online to anyone with Internet access. That’s over 40,000 books with court decisions from the federal government and each of the 50 states. This collection goes back over 200 years to the founding of our judicial system. That’s the nugget that sat me straight up in my chair and sent me off to find out more about the project.

You see I’m an avid genealogist, or more accurately, family historian. I want to dig up every record that spotlights the lives of my ancestors to document their life stories, as accurately as possible, for future generations. I want to discover events that happened to them, and around them. Surface level research to uncover names and dates no longer satisfies me. I know more information is out there, if only I could access it. I know, because every now and then I stumble upon records that tilt my perspective and force me to reform my family’s story again.

A few years ago, I was researching at the State Archives of NC, looking for references to my colonial ancestor, and D.A.R. patriot, Col. Thomas Matthews. Hoping to locate his land grant, I entered his name as search criteria in their MARS catalog. Up popped the land grant record I wanted, but also something unexpected.

MARS Id: – NC General Assembly records (1787) – Resolution suspending Col. Thomas Matthews from offices of Colonel and Justice of the Peace of Moore County. Resolution finds Thomas Matthews guilty of bribery and suspends him from office until he appears before the next General Assembly.

What? My bright, shiny D.A.R. Patriot, the colonel in the NC militia during the Revolutionary War, Thomas Matthews was guilty of official misconduct and removed from office as a Justice of the Peace? Yep.

Eyes wide, I filled out a record request and waited impatiently for the box to come out of the vault. Original records in hand, I read the petition of Duncan Campbell who accused Col. Thomas Matthews of forcing him to ‘sell’ a matched-pair of horses to him at no cost, under threat of jail for public drunkenness. Then I read the outcome, after several hearings, where the General Assembly stripped my ancestor of his commission for this extortion. This disappointing glimpse into my ancestor’s character, was somewhat eased by the subsequent petition of Moore County citizens seeking his reinstatement. While not successful, their petition revealed that he remained a respected member of his community.

Discoveries like these are priceless to family historians. This one came about fortuitously, because I was on-site at the NC archives when I ran a catalog search and could request access to the original General Assembly records. But it left me wondering. How many of my ancestors came into contact with the federal, state, or county courts at some point in their lives, leaving records waiting for discovery, if only I knew where to look for them? Did case records survive the Moore County court house fire of 1889? Without access to subscription-based, indexed common law databases, these questions remained unanswered.

That’s why I’m thrilled to learn about Harvard Law Library’s Free the Law project. It will give me, an average citizen, free online access to those records in a searchable format. The genealogical possibilities are endless, but oh so exciting to contemplate. Records for California and New York will be available this year. Federal and state records will continue to roll out online through 2016 and 2017.

In the library’s announcement, Jonathan Zittrain, the George Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard Law School, and Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources is quoted as saying “The materials in the library’s collection tell a story that goes back to the founding of America, and we’re proud to preserve and share that story.”

Well, this family historian is very thankful to the Harvard Law School and eager to begin reading those stories.

by: Linda Tant