You can inspect and copy judicial records and documents filed in federal court. See Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc., 435 U.S. 589 (1978). However, your right of access is not absolute, and court documents may be sealed or the records may otherwise be restricted by the law (for example, to protect personal privacy or trade secrets).
Documents related to cases are generally collected in a case file. A case file includes the documents filed by the litigants or issued by the judge, a docket sheet that lists such filings, and transcripts of court proceedings. However, a case file does not include other documents associated with a case, such as materials uncovered through discovery but not filed with the court, trial exhibits that were not admitted into evidence, and notes written by the judge or other court personnel.Online Access to Court Records
You can use Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER), an electronic filing system, to access federal court documents. As a member of the public, you can access case and docket information from Federal Appellate, District, and Bankruptcy courts via the Internet. PACER has a relatively complicated, page-based fee system that is described in detail on Overview and FAQ pages.
Using PACER, you can access the following case file documents:
- The names of all the parties and participants, including judges, attorneys, and trustees
- A compilation of case-related information, such as cause of action, nature of suit, and dollar demand
- The docket listing the case events by date
- A claims registry
- A listing of new cases each day
- Appellate court opinions
- Judgments or case status
- Types of documents filed for certain cases
- Images of documents
Although PACER allows you to access the above information from all federal courts, each court maintains its own database. If you have questions about the availability of certain documents, you will need to contact the specific federal court for more information.Grounds for Denial
You may be denied access to a court record for a variety of reasons, including data availability, lack of specificity in your request, and the potential for invasion of privacy due to personal or highly sensitive information. Additionally, courts may seal criminal records when disclosure would threaten the defendant's right to a fair trial.Your Remedies if You Are Denied Access
You have several options available if your request for access to court records is denied. First, understand the specific grounds for denial. If the denial was based on insufficient information about the documents, restructure your request by including the information necessary to locate the records. If the denial was based on privacy issues, ask whether the records can be made available after personal data has been redacted.
If the denial was based on a judicial order sealing the records, you may contest the court order. In order to do so, you will need legal assistance in filing an opposition to the court's order and requesting a hearing to open the sealed records. Additionally, the First Amendment Project has a series of steps to follow when you are faced with closed records.