HomeThoughts and MusingsQ&A with Judy Russell: A Conversation About The Upcoming WRHS Seminar, “Genealogy And The Law”
Disclaimer: I am the seminar chairperson for the Western Reserve Historical Society and also chapter representative for the Great Lakes APG chapter. I also think Judy is pretty awesome.

In anticipation of Judy Russell’s upcoming Cleveland, Ohio appearances on April 12 and 13, 2013, I thought I’d share an interview I did with Judy that was originally published in the WRHS Genealogy Bulletin, republished here with permission.1 Yea, yea, it’s an advertisement, but ya know what? I really believe that providing top-notch speakers and presentations is pretty important to the advancement of our beloved field, so if posting about it helps further that goal, I’m willing to do it!

On Friday, April 12, the Great Lakes APG chapter is hosting Judy, who will be presenting “The ABC’s of DNA”. Information and registration can be found at: http://www.greatlakesapg.org/events.html

On Saturday, April 13, Judy will be at the Western Reserve Historical Society presenting “Genealogy and the Law”. Information and registration can be found on the WRHS website at: http://www.wrhs.org/calendar/Genealogy_Law

I’m so excited to be a part of the Cleveland genealogical community and to be able to offer excellent programming like this. Please come out and support us! If you think that this article would be of interest to your group or society’s readership, please feel free to reprint this (with proper attribution, of course.)


“Q&A with Judy Russell

By Chris Staats

The Genealogical Committee is looking forward to our Spring 2013 Seminar, Genealogy and the Law! The event features acclaimed speaker, Judy G. Russell, and will be held in the brand-new Learning Center Auditorium at the Western Reserve Historical Society on Saturday April 13, 2013 from 9 am to 4 pm. Judy will be presenting four presentations: Knowing the Law; Court Records and Family Stories; Widows, Orphans, and the Law; and Through the Golden Door: Immigration After the Civil War (1864-1924).

If you follow any genealogy blogs, you may know Judy G. Russell better as author of the Legal Genealogist blog.<http://www.legalgenealogist.com/>. She is an adjunct law professor at Rutgers University, as well as a BCG-certified genealogist. Recently, she was elected by her peers (some of the world’s premier genealogists) as the newest trustee and member of that board. More importantly, she’s as passionate about genealogy as they come, and equally as passionate about sharing her knowledge with others. This will be a unique opportunity to tap into the expertise that Judy not only offers as a lawyer and genealogist, but also as a terrific speaker. Judy was kind enough to field a few questions about the upcoming event to give people an idea what the seminar is all about, and what to expect on April 13th.

CS: Judy, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions for folks who want to learn a little more about the upcoming  Genealogy and the Law seminar. First question (and I’ll need you to put your right hand on Evidence Explained for this one): Do you swear to tell the whole genealogical truth and nothing but the truth?

JGR: To the extent that direct, indirect, or negative evidence of the truth can be found in primary or secondary information in an original or derivative source, I do so swear, your Honor, sir.

CS: Law is often perceived as a complex, confusing subject. Exactly how much  “legalese”” will someone need to know prior to attending the seminar? Will they need to have passed the bar exam, or maybe be a full-time law student in order to understand what you’re talking about?

JGR: None. Seriously. My job isn’t to speak legalese; it’s to translate it into plain ordinary every-day English. My goal is that nobody, not one single person, will leave the presentations with the question “what does that mean” unanswered.

CS: This topic is a bit of a departure from the many ethnic-based seminars WRHS has offered in the past. People who have German ancestors see an obvious return in learning how to do German research. If someone has Irish family, they’ll attend an event that offers tips and techniques to find them. The benefit of a legal discussion may not be as obvious. Can you explain a little bit about the importance of the interaction between genealogy and the law, and how that interplay helps people researching their family history?

JGR: The fact is, just about every record we use as genealogists – from birth and death certificates in the United States to the German civil registration records those of us with German ancestors love  – exists because some law required it. Understanding the law that existed at the time and in the place where our ancestors lived helps us figure out not just what records exist, but also what those records are really telling us, and – best of all – what other records might be hiding somewhere that will tell us even more.

CS: What sorts of resources can people expect to learn about that will help them tap into and make sense of all that information?

JGR: We’ll be covering a wide variety of resources ranging from reading and understanding legal documents (what in the world is a scire facias anyway?) to specific go-to sources for the laws in effect when our ancestors lived and the legal records created for and about our ancestors. All of the resources help us focus on how to use the information in a practical way in our own family histories. Just as a few examples, in Knowing the Law, we’ll talk about how knowing one simple fact about the law helps prove that a woman in a will record had to be a niece, not a daughter. In Court Records and Family Stories, we’ll see how court minutes can tell us not just about who our ancestors were but about how they lived. In Widows, Orphans, and the Law, we’ll cover everything from what a widow’s dower rights were all about to what happened to children when a father died – and how that changed as time went on. And in  Through the Golden Door, we’ll see how it became harder and harder for our immigrant ancestors to come through that golden door to America  – and where to find out what the immigration laws were when your ancestors wanted to come here.

CS: Speaking of courts, the courthouse environment — the security checks, the rules, the language, clerks who don’t “speak” genealogy, heck, even the architecture itself can be intimidating to a new researcher. Any tips for a newbie (or otherwise frightened researcher) headed to the courthouse?

JGR: A little bit of homework can go a long way towards making that trip a lot less frightening. Just finding out in advance which office in the courthouse has which type of record (or even if the records are at the courthouse at all, since some get moved to archives or libraries), what hours the office is open, and what restrictions there may be on access can save a lot of time and anxiety. There’s usually some information on the county website about that, but getting in touch with the local genealogical societies and local genealogical librarians for help with the “rules of the road” for a specific office in a specific courthouse is always a good idea when planning a research visit.

CS: Being World Series time, I wonder:  You have a law degree, have practiced, and currently teach in that field. You are also a BCG-certified genealogist, and if that wasn’t enough, a new BCG trustee as well. If we have a World Series of Research pitting the genealogists against the lawyers, what are the strengths of each team, and who are you rooting for?

JGR: Objection! No fair, your Honor! I’m a switch-hitter! Okay, okay. Truth be told, each side has one major strength that the other can learn from. The lawyers’ team has the edge on understanding what any particular record may be telling us, because of that team’s background in the language and interpretation of the law. But lawyers are out to win, and sometime the truth isn’t on the lawyers’ side. The genealogists’ team has the edge on understanding that we win as family historians any time we find out the truth about what happened – even if it isn’t what we want to hear. As for who I’m rooting for, I have the right to remain silent because anything I say will be held against me…

CS: Follow up question: Many people, especially in Cleveland, are not particularly fond of lawyers or the Yankees. How do you plan to overcome this on April 13th?

JGR: Considering the Yankees’ performance this postseason, I’m going to be bringing my own individual-sized serving of humble pie. As for the lawyer thing, look at it this way: I have an almost unlimited repertoire of lawyer jokes…

CS: Judy, thank you for your time and for giving us a little look at what we can expect this spring. We’re really excited to be able to bring you to Cleveland, and can’t wait for your presentation!

JGR: I’m really looking forward to this trip, and excited for the opportunity to present to such a great audience!

 CS: The pleasure is all ours, Judy!

Registration is already open for this seminar and can be done quickly and easily online today! Visit  http://www.wrhs.org/calendar/Genealogy_Law for full details, presentation descriptions, and registration.  We hope to see you there!

Chris Staats is Seminar Chairperson for the Genealogical Committee”

  1. Chris Staats, “Q&A With Judy Russell,” WRHS Genealogy Bulletin 31-4 (Dec 2012):40. To subscribe, visit http://www.wrhs.org/support/Genealogical_Committee []

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