Court research

December 2nd, 2012 by Jack Styczynski

Points of emphasis for critical thinking:

  1. With many courts at the federal, state and local levels, there is no “one stop shopping” for court research.  In most cases, you’ll need to know the jurisdiction before you can find anything.
  2. In many jurisdictions, particularly at the local levels, case information isn’t online at all.  For those cases, you have no choice but to visit the courthouse or contact the court clerk to get info (unless you can get it from participating lawyers).
  3. Of the courts that do have case information online, there’s no uniformity.  Some post full case documents.  Others provide only basic docket information.  And many times, you’ll have to use a fee-based service to get the info.
  4. For federal cases, PACER is the best place to go.  Although fee-based, it’s relatively inexpensive.  It has both docket information and (most) case documents.  (Note: The Supreme Court has its own no-cost site separate from the PACER system.  Historical SCOTUS info can be found here, here, here and here.) FindLaw is another good site to search Supreme and Circuit Court decisions. USCourts.gov also publishes the very useful Journalist’s Guide to the Federal Courts and Understanding the Federal Courts.
  5. LexisNexis has case information for the most jurisdictions–federal, state and local–but not all of it is available in the academic version universally accessible to CUNY students.  See Barbara Gray in the Research Center for access to the professional version.
  6. Beyond PACER and LexisNexis, you should check individual court sites, such as the New York State Unified Court System’s eCourtsSlip Decisions or SCROLL (for Manhattan Supreme) pages, to find out what is and isn’t available online.  (Note: The Bronx County Clerk’s Office has a Law Case Search page, including access to court documents for anyone who registers.)
  7. For higher-profile cases, you can sometimes find court documents posted at sites such as MoreLaw or The Smoking Gun.
  8. You’ll probably need to talk to them for your story anyway, so if all else fails, lawyers might provide case information.  My favorite sites to find lawyer contacts are LegalDockets and Martindale.com.

For more tips on court research, see Barbara Gray’s guide.

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