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Missouri Supreme Court Historical Database

Supreme Court of Missouri: A Brief History

The Supreme Court of Missouri was created in 1820, with the adoption of the state's first constitution. As members of the state's highest court, Supreme Court of Missouri judges review important and often controversial legal issues that affect the lives of the state's citizens.

Originally, Missouri's Supreme Court had only three judges: Matthias McGirk, John D. Cook, and John Rice Jones. In 1872, the court expanded to five judges and again in 1890 to the current seven judges. The 20th Century saw more cases brought before the judges. In response to the heavier caseload, the Court was authorized to appoint four commissioners to assist with hearing cases and drafting opinions. Commissioners continued to assist Supreme Court judges until 1970, when a constitutional amendment brought the practice to an end.

For its first fifty-four years, the Court held session in various cities, rotating between St. Louis, St. Charles, Jackson, and Franklin. At various times, the Court also sat at Fayette, Bowling Green, Boonville, Palmyra, Potosi, Lexington, Columbia, Hannibal, Cape Girardeau, and St. Joseph. The 1875 Constitution provided for a permanent seat in Jefferson City. The current red-brick Supreme Court building was completed in 1907.

The Missouri State Archives holds over 6,350 cubic feet of Supreme Court records, which include legal files of cases argued before the Court during the territorial period, after statehood, and now into the 21st Century.

The files and opinions of the Court are informative in what they reveal about the history of Missouri. Included among the cases are documents such as transcripts from lower courts, briefs prepared by the attorneys or interested parties, depositions, summonses, and opinions of the Court. From fur traders and slavery to contested election results and trust-busting, the Court played a pivotal role in the state's history. It continues to do so today, sometimes attracting national attention, with its decision in cases involving issues ranging from segregation to the “right to die.”


Supreme Court of Missouri Records : Project History

In 1999, the Missouri State Archives and the Supreme Court of Missouri Historical Society began working together to provide access to the Supreme Court of Missouri case files. The Supreme Court of Missouri Historical Society was established in 1983. One of its purposes is to enable research into the Court's historical role and make that knowledge available to the public. To that end, the Supreme Court of Missouri Historical Society underwrites an annual summer internship and fellowship program at the Missouri State Archives.

Upper level undergraduate and graduate students process the historical records, then enter information such as appellant, respondent, year, cause of action, as well as an interpretation of the case into a database, easing access to records for researchers. The goal is to create a complex index for case files from the territorial period to the present. Currently, most cases up to 1868 are included in the index.

The first step in processing the records is cleaning and basic conservation of the documents. Any bindings, tape and metal are removed for the future protection of the paper pages. Next, the documents must be flattened. Court papers from the 1800s were usually tri-folded to fit into narrow drawers, making them very resistant to flattening.

After processing the records, interns compose database entries that will provide an online overview of the case. Often interns discover that cases involve prominent Missourians, like Daniel Boone or Claiborne Fox Jackson, or intriguing topics, such as the construction of gunboats by James Eads.

In 2010, the Missouri State Archives was awarded a $148,577 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) that enabled the Missouri State Archives to scan the original Supreme Court case files from 1821 to 1865 and link those digital images to the existing database entries. Work on the project began April 1, 2010 and concluded September 30, 2012.

In preparation for digital imaging, a staff archivist reviewed 586 boxes of case files, a process that included removing fasteners and ribbons from the case files, examining and standardizing the document order for each case and determining if any conservation work must be completed for the documents to be scanner ready. The conservation lab treated 1,048 case files to get them in a stable enough condition to scan. Treatment included cleaning; humidification to flatten documents; mending tears; and removing tape, glue and wafers.

Scanning technicians began the scanning and quality control process of the project in September 2010. Every document is scanned on a flatbed scanner and then cropped and checked for page orientation and image quality before being converted to a PDF document. An updated database, along with the first set of images, was made available to the public in November 2011.

As of September 2012, scanning technicians had scanned 428, 521 images from 8,423 files and the images have been placed online. With the help of volunteers, an additional 3,000 post 1865 images from 45 files have been scanned as of November 2012.

The cases reveal much about Missouri's history and its people, both famous and unknown. Among the cases heard by the antebellum Supreme Court judges were those dealing with disputed land claims, freedom from slavery, and steamboat explosions. Post-Civil War legal actions included women's suffrage, civil rights, and anti-trust lawsuits.