How to Look Up Court Cases
Court cases contain a wealth of information that can be useful for understanding the law, researching legal precedents, verifying facts, and checking someone’s background. With more court records becoming digitized and online databases on the rise, looking up court cases is easier than ever before. This guide will walk through the ins and outs of finding court case information online, from using government and third-party websites to searching records and getting copies of documents.
Understanding how to access and navigate court records can save considerable time and effort in legal research, fact checking, and confirming criminal histories. Let’s explore the world of online court case lookup services!
Reasons to Look Up Court Cases
There are many reasons why someone may want to look up a court case. Here are some of the most common:
Understand the Law to Look Up Court Cases
Researching court cases helps uncover how laws are interpreted and applied in real-world situations. Reading court opinions gives insight into legal reasoning and precedents that influence future rulings. For students, journalists, policy analysts and anyone interested in the legal system, looking up cases is key to understanding the law.
Research Similar Cases
Lawyers will look up court records to find cases similar to their client’s situation. This helps them build arguments by citing established precedents and rulings in analogous cases. For civil lawsuits especially, checking court histories can reveal useful information about how similar claims have been treated.
Confirm Facts About a Case
Journalists look up court cases to confirm factual information and dig deeper into the evidence behind controversies and events making headlines. Criminal cases may reveal details not disclosed in news reports, while civil suits can uncover histories between disputing parties.
Verify Someone’s Criminal Record
Many employers, landlords and organizations will check a person’s court records as part of a background check. This allows them to verify a criminal record or see if the person has been involved in civil litigation. However, court case lookups are just one part of a thorough background check.
Finding Online Court Records Databases
There are two main ways to lookup court cases online: search government-run databases, or use third-party legal research services. Let’s explore each approach:
Every court system has its own website where records can be accessed digitally. Records are usually available for federal appellate courts, state supreme courts, and certain county courts. Sites like PACER offer federal case lookups. Check these government-run databases first when searching for a case.
The main online portal for federal court records is PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). PACER offers case listings, dockets and electronic documents for all district, bankruptcy and appellate federal courts. You must register for an account and fees apply for usage and downloads.
For the Supreme Court, all case filings since 1990 are available at the Supreme Court website. Opinions dating back to 1754 can also be read online. The Federal Judicial Center offers a case locator tool for filed appeals, dockets and case summaries.
Many state courts post records online for supreme courts and lower appellate courts. The websites allow record searches by party names, case year, docket number and other filters. For example, the California Courts website provides opinions and briefs for the Supreme Court and Appellate Courts.
Major county court websites often provide online criminal and civil case access. For instance, the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court allows public record searches for traffic, family, housing and municipal cases in Chicago. Check your county’s court or clerk website for their particular offerings.
In addition to government databases, many third-party websites have searchable court case libraries online. These come from legal research services, news media archives and public record aggregators.
Legal Research Services
Legal companies like Westlaw and LexisNexis offer extensive court case lookup services for a subscription fee. They provide indexed access to published and unpublished opinions from all state and federal courts. Popular features include citators that track legal citations and headnotes.
News Media Archives
Major news organizations like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post keep their own legal news archives online. These are searchable for high-profile court cases they have reported on over the years.
Public Record Aggregators
Websites like PublicLegal and Casetext compile court records from jurisdictions nationwide into comprehensive free search tools. Users can lookup dockets, calendars, opinions and documents without paying PACER fees. However, aggregator sites may have less robust records than government sources.
Searching Court Records Online for Look Up Court Cases
Once you find the right government or third-party databases for your needs, advanced search skills are required to pinpoint the exact records you want. Follow these best practices for successful court case lookups online:
Know Where to Search to look up court case
Most court websites only include cases under their direct jurisdiction. A case heard in a Michigan county court will not show up on a Texas appellate court website. Figure out which specific court originally heard the case before searching.
Have Identifying Information
Lookups require details like case number, party names, filing dates, court location or presiding judge. The more identifying information you can provide, the easier it will be to filter search results and confirm case details.
Use Advanced Search Features
Look for advanced search options like Boolean operators, wildcards and date ranges to refine queries. On PACER, combine multiple search fields to narrow results to a specific case number, parties or court.
Look for Docket Information
Court dockets provide the complete history and timeline of a case’s proceedings and filings. Reading the docket sheet gives insights a single opinion or filing may lack on its own.
Getting Court Documents
Once located, how do you get copies of court case documents? There are several options:
For many jurisdictions, court records and opinions can simply be downloaded from government websites or services like PACER. Federal cases after the mid-1990s are readily available online. However, offline options may be needed for older cases.
Visit the courthouse archives in-person to access and copy older court files, audio records and documents not available digitally. Some courthouses offer self-serve kiosks or allow clerks to assist in locating records.
To certify records for legal purposes, you can request official copies from the courthouse clerk by mail or in-person. Fees and procedures vary; contact the specific court office to verify requirements.
Understanding Court Records to Look Up Court Case
Court records include a variety of documents that each reveal useful information:
Case Status and History
The docket sheet outlines the chronological case history from original filing to final disposition. It lists case status, hearings, motions, filings and rulings.
Full transcripts from court proceedings detail oral arguments, witness examinations, and exchanges between attorneys and judges during hearings.
Evidence and Motions
All exhibits, documents, and motions filed by parties in the case provide evidence, justifications and background details on arguments made in court.
Final Rulings and Settlements
The court’s final judgment, opinion, verdict or settlement decision concludes the case and sets influential precedents. Settlement terms may indicate who won concessions.
Look Up Court Cases Using Caution with Online Records
Despite usefulness, it’s important to remember a few cautions when using online court records:
Online records depend on what courts digitize and upload. Vital documents or case history can be missing, requiring courthouse research to fill gaps.
Mistakes and Errors
Court databases have been known to contain errors like wrong dates or misspelled names that spread misleading information. Always verify details.
Civil suits may reveal personal history and financial information. Be cautious posting private court records online. Redact sensitive details if necessary.
Utilizing Public Records
In some cases, court records may also be available through public record databases. This can be a valuable resource for finding older cases or historical information.
Legal Research Tips and Best Practices
Discover tips and best practices for efficient legal research, including citation standards and effective note-taking techniques.
Privacy and Ethics Considerations
When accessing court records, it’s essential to respect privacy and ethical considerations. Understand the limits of information sharing and the importance of responsible use.
Common Challenges in Court Case Lookups
Explore common challenges that individuals may face when searching for court cases and how to overcome them.
Benefits of Hiring a Professional
For complex legal research, consider the advantages of hiring a legal professional or researcher to ensure accurate and thorough results.
Looking up court cases online provides transparency into the legal process. Key points covered include:
- Search government court websites first, then expand to paid services or aggregators if needed.
- Docket sheets offer the full timeline and history in one place.
- Official copies may require contacting the court clerk directly.
- Use caution to avoid spreading private or incorrect information.
With the right search tools and savvy, court records can unlock crucial insights and precedents. Just remember to verify details and consider privacy concerns.
How do I find court cases from before the internet?
For older court cases not online, visit courthouse archives or a law library to access records on microfilm and in books. County clerk offices may also have historical case files.
What if a case doesn’t show up in a search?
If a known case doesn’t show up, try alternative name spellings and jurisdictions. Records may be under federal and state court systems. Ask the court clerk for help locating missing cases.
How far back do online federal records go?
PACER contains most appellate cases back to 1950, and all district cases back to the 1990s. Older records require offline research.
Can I access juvenile or adoption court records?
Juvenile and adoption cases are usually confidential and not accessible without special authorization. The court clerk can advise on procedures.
Where can I find the full text of court opinions online?
Opinions are posted on court websites and legal research services. Google Scholar also indexes state and federal opinions for free public access.