Legal professionals often need to access court documents and case information, but knowing where to find them most efficiently and cost effectively isn’t always easy. Most federal court documents are available via the PACER system. Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) is an electronic public access service that allows users to obtain case and docket information from Federal Appellate, District and Bankruptcy courts. However, users must pay a fee to access PACER – much to the consternation of those who believe that government information should be free.
Wisconsin has the CCAP system, which contains civil and criminal case information and status reports compiled through the court’s Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP) case management system. While you’ll find case information and dockets in CCAP, the actual documents filed in the case are not available.
Fortunately, several other services also provide access to recent court documents – some free and some fee based. The following is a run-down of services available to students, faculty and staff of the UW Law School.
Wisconsin Briefs (http://library.law.wisc.edu/eresources/wibriefs/) – If it’s briefs filed in Wisconsin courts that you need, try the Wisconsin Briefs database hosted by the UW Law Library. It contains briefs for Wisconsin Supreme Court and Court of Appeals published and unpublished cases since 1992 (173 Wis.2d).
Westlaw (http://lawschool.westlaw.com) – For law school users, Westlaw would be my first stop for locating other court documents. Often at the end of an opinion you'll see links to the briefs and other documents filed in the case. There are also several databases in Westlaw in which you can search for documents directly.
LexisNexis (http://lawschool.lexis.com) - LexisNexis also has several databases containing federal and state court documents. However, it doesn’t seem to display links to the documents directly with the opinion as Westlaw does.
Westlaw CourtExpress (http://courtexpress.westlaw.com) - CourtExpress is a separate Westlaw product, although you can access it with your regular Westlaw password. It contains state and federal dockets and some filed documents. CourtExpress offers some sophisticated search options, such as jurisdiction, keyword, nature of suit, party name, attorney or judge, date, and more. You can also set up alerts to monitor new cases or track filings in a specific case.
FreeCourtDockets (http://freecourtdockets.com) - FreeCourtDockets is a new, free service which allows anyone to retrieve federal civil, criminal, and bankruptcy court dockets. The site is the product of Courtport LLC, but is ad-sponsored. No PACER account is required to view the dockets, but if you wish to view the filings for a case, a PACER account is needed. To retrieve all court dockets except U.S. Supreme cases, you must first obtain an invitation code. To request a free code, you'll need to complete a form on the FreeCourtDockets website.
Justia Federal District Court Filings and Dockets (http://dockets.justia.com) - Justia contains case information from the Federal District Courts. Some cases also include opinions, orders, and other filings.
So what happens if you try all these services and still can't find what you need?
Then contact a reference librarian. Our law library staff can help you track down the documents you need. In some situations, we may be able to retrieve the documents from PACER. Or, if the documents aren’t available via PACER (which frequently happens with older cases), then we can assist you in contacting the clerk of courts to obtain the documents. Note that courts generally charge a fee for document delivery.
Submitted by Bonnie Shucha, Head of Reference on September 17, 2009
This article appears in the categories: Law Library