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I'm a historian, not a lawyer. I would like to get the documents, including the plaintiff and defendant's filings, the witnesses' depositions, and the judgment, for a civil land title case from a district court in a west Texas county in 1901. My typical historian methods of looking up court cases aren't working, this being from such a low-level rural court.

How may I go about getting this case? Will it be an online data base that lawyers have access to? Can I obtain it on my own, or would I need to get a lawyer to get it for me? I live in a large Texas city 300 miles away. Would a lawyer down the block from me who works in a different field (divorce, injury, etc.) have access to it, or would I need to consult a lawyer who regularly works with land from that part of the state, like at a title company? Would they even do it, since this is not a legal matter?

Or, is it hopeless to think that this case will be online, and I must find it in print? How would I do that? I've searched Worldcat for libraries that have Parker County district court records from that period, and there are no results.

The case is Malone et al. v. Moran et al., case number 3844, Parker County, Texas, April 13, 1901. The depositions contain a physical description of a man. I wish to read them to see if the two depositions appear to describe the same man and whether that affected the outcome of the case. A historian wrote in 1911 that the physical descriptions matched, but I disbelieve it, and want to read the depositions for myself.

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    There's a tiny bit of information in this book: play.google.com/store/books/… page 325. It's a bio of William Malone and refers to but doesn't describe the case.
    – mkennedy
    Feb 8 at 2:07
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    I found it using a general Google search: Malone Moran "parker county" texas
    – mkennedy
    Feb 8 at 2:08
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    And you've seen The Alamo Reader: A Study in History? that has two depositions by Highsmith for this trial. Google Books will excerpt, but it doesn' list an ebook.
    – mkennedy
    Feb 8 at 2:22
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    Yes, I know those sources. There is a contradiction between what appears in the Highsmith transcript in the Alamo Reader and the way it is summarized in the 1911 article. Thus my need to see both depositions for myself.
    – davo
    Feb 8 at 16:45
  • As a minor note, Parker County is in North Texas, not particularly west. (Eastland or Taylor counties are usually the eastmost "west Texas" counties.) Feb 8 at 23:16

3 Answers 3

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Some of the court minutes and records from Parker County, Texas, have been digitized and placed online at FamilySearch, a genealogy site provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that is free to use but requires a login.

Not all digitized materials on FamilySearch have been indexed; in other words, not everything is text-searchable. To find records there, go to Search > Catalog and enter the place name, in this case United States, Texas, Parker (you can type Parker and select the rest from the list). Then you'll be presented with a list of document categories, among which are Court records, Land and property, and Probate records.1

In the Court records, I found a case labeled 3644 (not 3844) that was S.C. Malone et al. v. A.O. Moran et al. and dated April 13, 1901. The pages summarize the case, which deals with a specific tract of land. G.W. Graybill is another party in this case. Click the images below to enlarge.

Malone v. Moran p1

Malone v. Moran p2

Malone v. Moran p3

In the Land and property records, I found an 1897 document between several people named Malone and G.W. Graybill conveying a tract of land in Parker County to G.W. Graybill.

Malone to Graybill

I do not see anything that looks like a description of a person, but I don't know exactly what you're looking for. There may be other relevant documents online; these are just what I found in a quick search.

1Some films on FamilySearch, among them the ones mentioned in this answer, require being at a Family History Center or a FamilySearch Affiliate Library in order to access the films. The site provides a way to find the nearest location. If you are in a large Texas city, there is probably one somewhat near you.

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How may I go about getting this case?

UPDATE: Glad to see that others have found the data. Best of luck!

The Final Decree Is Probably Easy To Obtain

The final decree is the case is probably recorded in the real property records of the county in question (it is fairly likely that the lis pendens giving notice of the filing of the case, and possibly also a document releasing the lis pendens when the case was concluded, are also in the public real property records). It would be cheap (relative to the cost of anything else you are contemplating) and easy to get a copy of the final decree and any and all other recorded documents related to that parcel of real property from a local title company, and they could email a copy to you.

An alternative to using a title company is to hire a "land man". A "land man" is an unlicensed independent paralegal, who usually does work for oil and gas companies and their lawyers for oil and gas title opinions, or for water rights lawyers. Land men are skilled in searching real estate title records and court records pertinent to real estate title for particular parcels of real estate. They then turn over their raw search result to some sort of real estate, oil and gas, or water rights lawyer for analysis of the state of the title to determine if there are any loose ends or ambiguities in the title that have to be cleared up to make the title marketable.

Lawyers are involved because title companies typically refuse to insure oil and gas title or title to water rights, so in real estate deals where this is material, the parties rely on a title opinion from a lawyer instead.

The Court File Has Probably Been Destroyed

If it hasn't been destroyed, the court file is probably in the custody of the clerk of the court in question, or its successor, in deep paper storage, in either a bankers box or on microfiche. If those records were transferred to some archive, the clerk of that court or of the successor court should be able to tell you (probably by phone).

But it is much more likely to have been destroyed.

In all likelihood, everything else besides the final decree has been destroyed.

The parties filings other than the final decree, but including the reasoned order of the judge, would have bee kept at the court clerk's office for a couple of decades and then probably destroyed.

The Lawyer's Files Were Probably Destroyed And Are Confidential If They Still Exist

The written depositions were probably in the custody of the lawyers, but never filed with the court. The court reporters who swore in the deponents wouldn't almost never keep a copy for more than a few years.

The lawyers' files were probably destroyed no later than when the law firms shut down (if the lawyers were sole practitioners, as would have been most common in rural Texas in 1901, probably upon their deaths). If the didn't shut down, the depositions and lawyer's files were probably destroyed either shortly after the case was truly a final judgment with all possibility of appeal exhausted, or perhaps a decade or so later, if they were saved against the risk of future litigation of some kind.

Also, the lawyers couldn't legally disclose their files (or event the existence of their files), if they still had them, without the consent of the successor to their clients. Attorney-client privilege (or more pertinently, the parallel duty of a lawyer to keep all client information confidential, whether or not it is attorney-client privileged) survives the death of both the lawyer and the parties to the case. Disclosing these files 123 years later without client successor consent probably wouldn't get the lawyer disbarred or suspended, but it probably would result in an admonition or other black mark on their official permanent public disciplinary record and quite possibly an order to go to ethics school to relearn the rules about client confidentiality.

A Successor Of The Client Might Have The Lawyer's File

There is a small possibility that the lawyers for one or both sides turned over their files to the parties who were litigating the case, and that those files were then retained by the families as family history and still exist today. Indeed, that is the most likely scenario in which these records would still exist. But the odds of that having happened at all are maybe 10-15%, and the odds that those records still exist 123 years later are maybe 1-5%, depending upon how historically notable the case was and how historically notable the owners of the land were. The odds are a little better if one of the parties to the case were someone famous whose personal documents may have been turned over to a library or archive, or if one of the parties was some sort of non-profit organization that has kept its records forever.

Will it be an online data base that lawyers have access to?

There is a chance that the existence of the case will be noted in a surviving index of cases that was digitized. This would be the only online data that would be available, if there is any (and the details in the question suggests that it isn't). It is more likely that the index of cases from 1901 exists only in paper form, or on microfiche, if it exists at all. There is a good chance that even the index of cases from then was destroyed.

is it hopeless to think that this case will be online?

Yes. Online data is only very rarely available for legal matters before the 1960s and often doesn't start until the 1990s or 2000s. Rural Texas doesn't have a reputation for being exceptionally good about archiving very old legal documents online.

But if you were miraculously lucky, maybe some local college professor, or historical society, went above and beyond the standard found in 99% of the U.S.

Can I obtain it on my own, or would I need to get a lawyer to get it?

If it exists at all, you wouldn't need a lawyer. If it was a public record that still existed, you wouldn't need anyone's consent. If it was in a lawyer's custody, you would need the consent of the successor to the client. You don't have any legal right to the documents if they are not found in public records.

Footnote

I do have some familiarity with this kind of work.

In addition to being a lawyer, in Colorado and New York State, I was a history minor in college and did a fair amount of archival research in that capacity for a senior project. My wife did historical research for a master's thesis that I helped her out on in some technical details, and she was an employee of the University of Michigan library system for a while. I have also done some amateur genealogy work. And, I was a radio news reporter in college, and was a professional print journalist for an online magazine around 2008-2010ish.

One of my first cases as a sole practitioner in greater Buffalo, New York, was title work for a restaurant building that was being sold that had about a dozen unrecorded deeds between the last record owner and the current owner that had been maintained and authenticated by Taiwanese notaries that has to be translated from legal terminology in Taiwanese Mandarin into English and then domesticated. This also required a full title search back to (and before) one of its previous owners, our 13th President, Millard Fillmore, complete with his recorded affidavit from the early 1800s that he didn't have a common law wife who could claim rights in the property.

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    The assistance of a local lawyer might help though, as those would know who to ask in the court building or who might have gotten hold of old papers for they are the successor of some other lawyer.
    – Trish
    Feb 7 at 19:26
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    As far as online depositories: Anything before 1990 is most likely not unless it was snatched by the internet archive - and they only did all the volumes of SCOTUS afaik and some few influential cases.
    – Trish
    Feb 7 at 19:28
  • Since this has become a matter of everything depending on the particulars, I will supply more of them. A historian wrote in 1911 that he had seen all three depositions in the case. He stated that they were obtained from the case record on file in Parker County. A transcription of one of the depositions was published in 2003. I don't know when the transcription was made, or who made it. I assume it was made by the 1911 historian, but I really have no idea. Its recent publication makes me think that the other depositions might still exist in the courthouse archives.
    – davo
    Feb 7 at 22:46
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    @Davo Contact the people who published it in 2003. Why reinvent the wheel?
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 7 at 23:53
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    @davo The point is, that is someone has gone through the trouble to find out where the records are looking for are, and is likely to be friendly and share that information, it may be the most efficient option. Every route involves an uncertain amount of time and no guarantee of getting the documents that you are looking for.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 8 at 18:01
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The Texas State Library and Archives Commission indicates on this page that the records you seek may be stored on microfilm at the University of Texas -- Arlington. The case number would be on:

Reel 1548429 1899-1900 (#3553-3684; 3791-4026)

There are apparently more detailed indexes.

Librarians are generally willing to help with any sort of research task. Good luck.

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