Legal Affairs

MuckRock Provides a State-By-State Look at Your Public Records Laws

These are laws that strongly affect genealogists. Many states are locking up public domain birth, marriage, and death records under the bogus claim of “preventing identity theft.” What’s the odds that an identity thief wants to use the personal information of my grandmother who died more than 60 years ago? Does anyone believe a thief can obtain a loan or a credit card in her name?

In any case, MuckRock tracks the laws of 50 states plus Washington D.C., all with different statutes, exemptions, and limitations that dictate what you can get from your state and local agencies. With the rules of access differing across the board, MuckRock provides an easy way to keep track of them all through our interactive database showcasing the best, the worst, and the confusing parts of state records law.

MuckRock is available at:

Second Federal Court Strikes Citizenship Question From 2020 Census

This has been a see-saw battle. For the second time, a Federal court blocked a controversial citizenship question from the 2020 census

Judge Richard Seeborg wrote that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “ignored” federal law when he added the question. Seeborg cited evidence he said shows the question lowers self-response rates among immigrants and non-citizens.

Wikimedia Apologizes for Taking Historical Photos from Israeli Archives without Permission

This should serve as reminder to all of us that information and pictures available to the public on the World Wide Web are not to be taken and republished elsewhere without permission. Yes, many people do that, including some large organizations such as the nonprofit But that doesn’t mean that republishing anything elsewhere is legal.

NOTE: Wikimedia is the parent organization of Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, Wiktionary, WikiNews, and several other major web sites.

After complaints were made about Wikimedia’s use of images taken from the Israeli Archives and republished on its own web site, Wikimedia Israel has announced it will collaborate with the Association of Israeli Archivists (AIA) and the National Library of Israel to make copyright-free historic materials publicly available on Wikimedia’s server.

The full story may be found in an article in the CTech web site at:

New York City Fines Cemetery Association $20,000 over ‘Sponsorship’ Banners

The Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries of Staten Island, a non-profit that cares for derelict graveyards, sold “sponsorship” banners (or signs) place near a number of abandoned cemeteries to raise money for fence repairs around the Lake Cemetery on Forest Avenue. Most of the abandoned cemeteries are located in residential areas.

This story is about laws in New York City but many other cities may have similar laws about placing signs with advertising in residential areas.

The banners — one advertised the Exit Exterminating company and featured pictures of cockroaches and other bugs — were not only in questionable taste, they ran afoul of New York City rules. The Department of Buildings issued violations for the outdoor ads, which are prohibited in the residential district. The city initially fined the Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries of Staten Island $50,000 but later reduced the fine to $20,000.

Proposed Bill Would Force Many Arizonians to Pay $250 to Have Their DNA Added to a Database

This proposed legislation would be great for future genealogists if they can gain access to the database (which I doubt). However, there are huge security and privacy issues involved.

Arizona Bill 1475 was introduced by Republican State Senator David Livingston and would require teachers, police officers, child day care workers, and many others to submit their DNA samples along with fingerprints to be stored in a database maintained by the Department of Public Safety.

“While the database would be prohibited from storing criminal or medical records alongside the DNA samples, it would require the samples be accompanied by the person’s name, Social Security number, date of birth and last known address,” reports Gizmodo. “The living will be required to pay [a $250 processing fee] for this invasion of their privacy, but any dead body that comes through a county medical examiner’s office would also be fair game to be entered into the database.”

The text of the proposed bill may be found at:

New Legislation Seeks To Protect Lost African-American Burial Grounds

From an article by David Anderson in Forbes:

“When new construction projects break ground across the United States, they regularly encounter archaeological materials. Those materials can represent the last surviving trace of the lives lived by the people who made them; and all too often, those materials turn out to be from cemeteries and burial grounds used by segregated and enslaved African American communities. These cemeteries typically went undocumented on local and state government maps and graves were often only marked ephemerally, thus making these spaces all but invisible in the present day.

Judge Declines to Block Citizenship Question from the 2020 Census on Privacy Grounds

This has been an ongoing issue that will affect future genealogists. In short, the Census Bureau proposed adding a question asking for each U.S. resident’s citizenship status in the 2020 census forms. A privacy and civil liberties nonprofit group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, responded by launching a lawsuit against the government claiming that the US Census Bureau was required to first complete a privacy impact assessment. The Electronic Privacy Information Center then asked for an immediate injunction be issued to prevent the Census Bureau from going forward with the citizenship question until the issue had been decided in the courts..

On Friday, US District Judge Dabney Friedrich declined to issue a preliminary injunction. The Electronic Privacy Information Center said in a statement it “intends to press forward with” its lawsuit.

A citizenship question has been asked of census respondents before, but not since 1950.

Indian Man to Sue Parents for Giving Birth to Him

A 27-year-old Indian man plans to sue his parents for giving birth to him without his consent. Mumbai businessman Raphael Samuel told the BBC that it’s wrong to bring children into the world because they then have to put up with lifelong suffering.

Obviously, his parents should have asked his permission first.

If you want to read more about this bit of stupidity, look at the article by Geeta Pandey in the BBC News web site at:

Ohio Open Records Bill Signed Into Law Becomes Effective April 7

The following announcement was written by Jan Meisels Allen, Chairperson of the IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee:

Former [Ohio] Governor John Kasich signed HB 139 into law on January 7, that lifts public access restrictions on records for permanent retention 75 years after their creation. It also permits a birth parent to have their name redacted from an original birth certificate. Certain types of records are excepted from the 75-year rule. Some records are subject to court rulings statewide, such as adoption records, probation and parole proceedings, confidential law enforcement investigatory records, DNA records stored in the DNA database, and court lunacy records. The current ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court says that it is up to each county judge as to whether or not the records are open in the respective county.

The U.S. Census Bureau Will Test a Citizenship Question Ahead of the 2020 Census

Sadly, politics has again reared its ugly head again in the simple act of counting the population of the United States, as required by Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution: “The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”

Sadly, the simple words of “in such Manner as they shall by Law direct” has been debated by various political groups as to what data is to be collected. I have written before about the latest simple issue: should a U.S. resident be asked about his or her citizenship? You can see my past articles about this issue by starting at:

The simple question about asking about citizenship in the 2020 US Census has resulted in at least six lawsuits.

District of Columbia Council Enacts 2011 Model Vital Records Act

The following announcement was written by Jan Meisels Allen, Chairperson of the IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee:

This is one we missed when it was being debated by the District of Columbia Council in 2017. They enacted the 2011 Model Vital Records Act which became effective October 30, 2018. The new law number is: D.C. ACT 22-434, L22-0164

The signed copy is available at: It was published in the DC Register on September 14, 2018 (Vol 65 and Page 13690 ) and transmitted to Congress on September 17, 2018

To access the history see:

Of concern to genealogists is Section 124 (starting on page 27) Confidentiality and Disclosure of Information from vital records or vital reports.

Why Was the Information Removed from Online?

NOTE: This is a slightly updated version of an article I published three years ago. I have added a new section about the restrictions recently added by the European GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation).

Several newsletter readers have sent messages to me expressing dissatisfaction with records that were available online at one time but have since disappeared. I am offering this republished article as an explanation about why we should not be surprised when that happens. I will also offer a suggestion as to making sure you keep your own copies of online records that are valuable to you.

Two newsletter readers sent email messages to me recently expressing dissatisfaction that a set of images of vital records has been removed from a popular genealogy site. Indeed, removal of any online records of genealogical value is sad, but not unusual. Changes such as these are quite common on FamilySearch, MyHeritage,, Fold3, Findmypast, and many other genealogy sites that provide images of old records online. Removal of datasets has occurred dozens of times in the past, and I suspect such things will continue to happen in the future. I thought I would write a brief explanation.


Maryland Legislature Bill Introduced Prohibiting Law Enforcement to Use Publicly Available DNA Databases

The following is a message from Jan Meisels Allen, Chairperson, of the IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee:

Familial DNA matches have been in the news since the California Golden State Killer was apprehended due to this technology last year. Since then other familial matches have led law enforcement to make other such arrests in outstanding major crimes such as murder and rape.

A bill introduced in Maryland, HB 30, would prohibit such searches by law enforcement or others from searching DNA or genealogical databases in order to identify an offender in connection with a crime for which the person may be a biological relative to the individual whose DNA sample is in the database. See:

Maryland is the first state to ban the practice of familial DNA searches statewide. The District of Columbia also bans the practice. The state’s DNA collection act was authorized in 1994 which included a provision prohibiting familial searches using the statewide DNA data base for such searches. The bill extends the existing prohibition to commercial databases. Author believes the search violates the 4th Amendment of US Constitution and state constitution.

Federal Judge Blocks Trump Administration From Asking the Citizenship Question from 2020 Census

I have written about this question before. See for my past articles about the 2020 U.S. Census.

Now a New York Judge has ruled that the 2020 US Census may not include the proposed citizenship question. The opinion from US District Court of Southern District of New York Judge Furman stated:

“Secretary Ross’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census—even if it did not violate the Constitution itself—was unlawful for a multitude of independent reasons and must be set aside”.

The Impact of the U.S. Government Shutdown to Genealogists

The news media is full of reports about the impact of the U.S. government shutdown, both to government employees and to private citizens alike. I see no point in repeating those stories here. However, I will say that genealogists should be aware of the impact to their research efforts.

If you were planning a genealogy research trip in the near future, you need to be aware that:

Bill Filed in Texas to Place 125 Year Embargo Period on Birth Records

If passed, this will be a major obstacle to researching Texas ancestors. The following message was received from Jan Meisels Allen, Chairperson of the IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee:

A bill has been filed in the Texas State Legislature that would impose a 125 year embargo period on access to birth records. Death records are not changed from their current 25 year embargo. Existing law regarding indexes whether a general or summary index is not being proposed to be amended from current statute. To read the bill see:

The bill was filed on January 9, 2019 and not yet assigned to a committee.

Thank you to Brooke Schreier Ganz, president and founder, Reclaim the Records for sharing the information on the bill filing with us.

Nevada Issues Almost 1,000 Marriage Certificates on the Ethereum Blockchain, But Government Acceptance Varies

This could be a game changer for future genealogists seeking information about marriage licenses. It should reduce paperwork and provide security for important government records. I don’t see it having much impact on genealogists for a few years. However, I do suspect we will all hear more and more about “the blockchain” any time we are discussing record keeping of legal documents.

So far, 950 digital marriage certificates, which use smart contracts on the Ethereum blockchain for security, have been issued to couples residing both within and outside Nevada since April 2018.

All Copyrighted Works First Published In the US In 1923 Will Enter Public Domain On January 1st

Most U.S. genealogists have been told that all books  and other documents published PRIOR to 1923 are in the public domain. In other words, those books are not under copyright. However, that rule is changing. Starting on New Year’s Day, published in 1923 are now in the public domain. The new rule will be: all books and other documents published PRIOR to 1924 are in the public domain.

That rule will add another year again every January 1st thereafter.

Details may be found an an article by Glenn Fleishman in the Smithsonian Magazine at

Reclaim The Records Filed a New York State Freedom of Information Lawsuit and Won Access to the New York State Marriage Index, then Filed a New Lawsuit About It

Reclaim The Records continues to file legal actions against various government agencies that refuse to provide public access to public records that legally must be available to the public. The latest victory for genealogists concerns a Freedom of Information request to the New York State Department of Health (NYS DOH) back in September 2017. Reclaim The Records was notified they had won the request in mid-February 2018, and then received a portable hard drive with the records in mid-March 2018.

However, there was a problem. It seems that Reclaim The Records only received about 60% of what they had asked for. It seems that New York also withheld decades of data, and did it in a particularly dumb way that ignores several legal precedents. And that’s not good enough. The public deserves 100%!

Then the story becomes complicated. You can read the full story on the Reclaim The Records web site at

Reclaim The Records Files Freedom of Information Act Lawsuit–US Department of Veterans Affairs

The following announcement was written by Jan Meisels Allen, Chairperson of the IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee:

Reclaim the Records has previously filed suit in different state jurisdictions—their new Freedom of Information Act litigation is against a federal agency– the US Department of Veterans Affairs. The law suit, filed on September 17, 2018, asks the US Department of Veterans Affairs to provide a copy of the Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem (BIRLS) Death File. A letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs dated September 13, 2018 states they “remanded the request to their FOIA Officer for further consideration, appropriate processing and issuance of a subsequent IAD”. [IAD means Initial Agency Decision] The case is still pending.

This database contains basic information on about fourteen million deceased American veterans who served in the US military and then later received benefits from the VA, such as healthcare or the GI Bill, between approximately 1850-2017. Each record includes the veteran’s dates of birth and death, dates of enlistment and release, and branch of service. Some years have a little more information available than others, including the veteran’s basic cause of death (i.e. natural or combat-related), gender, and possibly other fields.