North Carolina Court Records
This entry was originally written by Johni Cerny and Gareth L. Mark for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions (ca. 1670–1868). The court of pleas and quarter sessions was the basic court of North Carolina’s counties. As such, it was often called the county court or precinct court before 1739 and the inferior court after 1806.
The county court was presided over by justices of the peace and handled minor civil matters (usually dealing with indebtedness), misdemeanors, probate, levying and expending of local taxes, matters dealing with public works (buildings, roads, bridges, ferries, and mills), summoning and selection of jurors, and a host of other local matters. See Raymond A. Winslow, Jr., “The County Court,” The North Carolina Genealogical Society Journal 10 (1984): 70-79 and 134–43, for an in-depth examination of the county court. The court of pleas and quarter sessions was abolished under the constitution of 1868, and the county superior court took over its functions.
The county court minutes often are not indexed but are one of the richest sources of genealogical information available. Gaps in local records may be filled in by examination of the Supreme Court of North Carolina case files (see below).
General Court (1670–1754). The general court, sometimes called the court of grand council, the grand court, and the Court of Albemarle, was the court of appeals for the county court. Additionally, the general court was the court of origin in all criminal cases punishable by loss of life or limb. The court often handled probate of large estates or estates that included land in several counties. Three district courts were added to the general court in 1739, and the court was replaced in 1754 by district courts.
District Courts (1754–1806). District courts, sometimes called district superior courts, replaced the general court in 1754. In 1782 district courts acquired jurisdiction over all equity cases. From 1771 to 1778 the district courts did not function. When the courts were reestablished in 1778, their probate authority was transferred to the county courts. District courts were replaced in 1806 by superior courts in each county.
Superior Court (1806–present). In 1806 each county received a superior court to share the judicial burden until the constitution of 1868 abolished the county court. Initially, superior courts heard cases involving large sums of money or serious criminal charges, and then took over all county-level court jurisdiction in 1868.
Court of Chancery (1663–1776). The governor and council were members of the court of chancery. During its period of operation, this court was the only court with jurisdiction over equity cases, such as division of land between partners, enforcement of contracts, and other non-criminal cases. In 1782 the North Carolina legislature vested jurisdiction over equity cases in the district courts. The equity system was abolished by the constitution of 1868.
Court of Conference (1799–1805) and Supreme Court of North Carolina (1805–present). The supreme court is the highest judicial level in the state. It was originally formed by the judges of the district superior courts, but election of supreme court justices began in 1818. Before the twentieth century, if a case was appealed to the supreme court, the entire case file was often transferred from the lower court to the supreme court. See Loren D. Austin, “Genealogy in North Carolina’s Supreme Court Cases,” The North Carolina Genealogical Society Journal 7 (August 1981): 124-32.
The North Carolina State Archives maintains most original pre-1900 court records, and microfilm copies are available at the FHL. See Leary, North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History (cited in Background Sources for North Carolina) for a more thorough discussion of North Carolina’s court system. An information circular, “North Carolina Courts of Law and Equity Prior to 1868,” is available online at www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us.