Saturday, June 25, 2005


My profile at the top of this page mentions in passing that I'm a lawyer, among other things. And naturally, whatever else they do, lawyers eventually will get around to thinking about the law.

There's quite a lot to be said about genealogy and the law, as you might have guessed [or feared!]. At one level, genealogy and the law are fellow travellers; issues of marriage, sucession, parentage, and other familial relations are socio-legal questions that inform genealogy. Every first-year law student studying property is exposed to ancient genealogical issues that resonate in some forms yet today.

Then there are the practical researcher's questions about privacy, libel, and copyright. What must one do to protect the privacy of living persons? Do the dead have privacy rights? [Not generally, but their heirs may have certain rights to exploit commercially--or prevent others from exploiting commercially--the likenesses of certain figures]. Can the living be cast in actionable "false light" by statements about dead relatives in a family history? [Probably not, but remember, the only safe answer to any legal question is, "It depends . . . ."]

So from time to time, I'll explore a legal topic relevant to genealogy. I'll keep it as straightforward as possible--and remember, please, this is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. If you need legal advice, go consult a lawyer on your own in your own town and state.

A Tip for Researchers

A potential interesting and rich area for genealogical research is the official reports of the appellate courts of the states and federal government. These reports are the compiled opinions of the state supreme courts and courts of appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal Courts of Appeals. They are available in law libraries and in some cases, general public libraries. [I noticed recently that the Virginia Room of the Fairfax City Regional Library, a branch of the Fairfax County Public Library, carries some volumes of Virginia cases.] Increasingly, opinions are available online, although most courts' online resources only go back to the mid-1990's. You can find them at a specific court's website like Georgia's, which is at, or through a central site like

The older cases tend to be the more interesting, and for them, you'll have to go to a library or somehow get access to a fairly expensive subscription service such as Westlaw or LexisNexis.

What exactly is the genealogical value of the case reports? Well, let's take the Georgia cases as an example. The name "Birdsong" appears in the Georgia reports thousands of times. We find Birdsongs as plaintiffs, defendants [both civil and criminal], victims, witnesses, lawyers, and judges! And each case is a little story that offers us a glimpse into an ancestor's or relative's world. [For example, what's the rest of the story in the 1976 case of Birdsong v. State of Georgia, wherein one Mrs. Birdsong, indicted and tried for murder of her husband's inamorata, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter?].

In a future post, we'll discuss just how to research the caselaw.

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