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Chicago City Government Records

City Courts

City Courts

Chicago’s network of courts owed its creation to reforms during the Progressive Era. Originally referred to as “justice shops” by working-class Chicagoans, the Illinois State Legislature consolidated the fifty-two local justice of the peace courts into a Municipal Court of Chicago (1906). The Legislature would restructure the courts again, in 1970, forming the Circuit Court of Cook County (1970). Researchers interested in the legal history of the City might benefit from understanding the various courts that existed throughout Chicago’s history, their different organizations and structures, and the sort of issues each tackled in its cases.

Purpose of this section:

This guide helps researchers learn: 1) what courts existed in Chicago at different points in time; 2) the structure of City courts; 3) some of the key officials of these courts; and 4) where to look for archival records about each court and some court officials.

The City Courts in Chicago:

Before 1906, Chicago had fifty-two local courts called the "justice of the peace courts.” Judges of each court were appointed by the governor. They had to be at least twenty-five years old and did not require legal training. Each judge served as a representative of their local community and often held their court in their personal offices. The judges made money by charging the litigants a fee for their services, which included performing marriages and deciding criminal cases. The City’s mayor appointed eighteen of the fifty-two judges as police magistrates, designated to settle minor criminal cases within police stations throughout the City. These magistrates collected a salary as well as fees for services.

During the Progressive Era, female reformers lobbied to reform the court system in Chicago. Florence Kelley, who regarded the child as a ward of the state, and Lucy Flower, of the Chicago Women’s Club, lobbied for the passage of Illinois’ Juvenile Court Act of 1899. The act established a separate court and corresponding facilities to deal with the growing issue of juvenile delinquency.

Hiram Thornton Gilbert authored legislation to establish a Municipal Court in Chicago after the Illinois Constitution was amended in 1904. The following year, in 1905, the General assembly passed the Municipal Court of Chicago Act. The act created a new city court structure and removed the city from the suburban justice of the peace courts in Cook County. By 1927, 39 cities across the United States adopted a similar system of a centralized court with specialized branches.

In the early 1910s, Chief Justice Harry Olson (1906-1930) established numerous specialized courts. One feature of the act was that it gave the Chief Justice power to establish courts as a response to combat the social ills of the urban environment. Within this system, the Chief Justices created, and disbanded specialized courts as needed. Olson’s first specialized court was the Attachment, Garnishment, and Replevin Branch. This court’s jurisdiction included the forms of civil action, such as garnishment or the seizing of property to collect on debts owed by the defendant. By the 1930s, various divisions existed within the Municipal Court, such as the Court of Domestic Relations (1911), the Morals Court (1913), and the Boys Court (1914). Other specialties included the Speeders’ Court (1913) and Small Claims Branch (1915). Although this is not an exhaustive list of the specialized courts, the Annual Reports of the Municipal Court of Chicago include information for each court.

In the 1960s, state legislatures spearheaded an effort to make Illinois’ court system uniformed and reorganize the plethora of courts in the state. Cook County had over two hundred individual courts alone. The older system of justice courts prevailed still in suburbs and collar counties and judges in circuit, superior, and criminal courts maintained their independent authority. In 1964, a constitutional amendment consolidated courts throughout the state into nineteen circuit courts, where a three-tiered level of judges handled the judicial matters of the circuit. The Illinois State Constitution of 1970 solidified the changes and established the court hierarchy as it exists today. The constitutional changes merged the previously overlapping jurisdictions under a unified court, headed by a Chief Judge. The Office of the Chief Judge coordinates and supervises the administrative functions of the Circuit Court, preparing annual budgets and assigning judges across the organization.

As of 2021, the Circuit Court of Cook County is one of the largest in the world, with approximately four hundred judges assigned to County, Juvenile Justice and Child Protective, or the Municipal Department. The County Department is organized by the type of case and consists of seven divisions: Law, County, Chancery, Domestic Relations, Probate, Domestic Violence, and Criminal. The Juvenile Justice and Child Protective Department consists of two divisions: a Juvenile Justice and Child Protection Division. The Municipal Department settles civil cases for recovery of money or property in amounts of $30,000 or less, criminal prosecutions, and traffic offenses. The Municipal Department is organized geographically. Its six districts are Chicago, Skokie, Rolling Meadows, Maywood, Bridgeview, and Markham. 

Finding records about City courts:

The Illinois Regional Archives Depository (IRAD) System notes that the Illinois State Archives houses Justice of the Peace records. These records include dockets as well as minutes. The docket records show the chronological information of the case, individuals involved, abstract of the proceedings, and judgement rendered. The minutes document the names of the justices of the peace, appointments made by these courts, and any licenses issued.

The documents concerning Courts in Chicago are scarce and dispersed. The University of Chicago’s D’Angelo Law Library holds the Municipal Court’s annual reports (1906-1936), which include caseload statistics, rules of procedure, information about the court’s history, reports from specific branches of the court, and statements made by Chief Justice Harry Olson, Dr. William J. Hickson, and other judges.

The Municipal Court of Chicago Collection (1906-1927) at the Chicago History Museum and Harry Olson Papers at Northwestern University include records and official correspondence from his tenure as the Chief Justice (1906-1930).  The personal papers at Northwestern include newspaper clippings, programs, and announcements. The Chicago History Museum has digitized some photographs of Olson and the guide archival guide notes that some scrapbooks were sent to the Chicago History Museum in 1994 and 1999.

The Harold Washington Library’s Municipal Reference Collection contains a plethora of documentation about the Municipal Court, emphasizing from 1906-1936. Some of these documents include manuals about procedures, various reports from the specialized courts, brief histories of the court, speeches, and documents from some benches of the judges.

The early research about the Municipal Court, especially the work conducted by Hiram Thornton Gilbert, could be a helpful avenue to gain background knowledge about the machinations of the Municipal Court, its various specialized courts, procedures, and key figures within the court. Gilbert, an ex-judge, was also one of the authors of the Municipal Court Act of 1906. In 1928, Gilbert wrote a history of the Municipal Court, available via HathiTrust.

In Chicago, the Cook County Circuit Court Archives holds an incomplete run of cases from 1914-1924 in the Municipal Court of Chicago Criminal Records. The Circuit Court Archives also have material about the Municipal Court’s Feebleminded Commitment Cases, 1915-1936, and the Municipal Court’s General Order Books, containing all orders signed by the court’s judges.  

For researchers interested in more recent legal history of Chicago, the Cook County Circuit Court Archives Department, founded in 1992, holds records for Juvenile (1899-1926, with gaps, 1926-1964 destroyed, only a sample preserved thereafter), Adoption and Mental Health (1871-present), County Court (1871-1975), Criminal Felony (1871-1900; 1927-1983), Divorce (1871-1986), Law and Chancery (1871-1963; 1964-1991), Probate cases (1871-1976), and Naturalization Records (1871-1929). See the Archives Department's instructions for requesting a specific archived court case.

This page was authored by Emiliano Aguilar Jr., a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Northwestern University.