While we can't guarantee that you will get every court record or attend every court proceeding you desire, the following tips will help ensure that you take full advantage of the wealth of information available through state and federal courts.
Tips for Accessing Court Proceedings
- Know your rights and be prepared. If you want to attend the court proceeding for a specific case, check with the clerk's office to see whether either party has filed a motion to close the proceedings. If you find a motion pending, you should consider getting legal assistance to help you oppose the motion. If the judge closes the proceedings while you are present in the courtroom, be prepared to object to the closure on the spot. Consult the section on Remedies if you are denied access for more information.
- Be polite. Judges and court personnel take court decorum very seriously, so be respectful. A calm demeanor will also help you be taken more seriously. If you are asked to leave the courtroom, do not refuse to do so. Exit, and get legal help in planning your next step.
- Understand courtroom restrictions on newsgathering activities. While you may be able to attend most judicial proceedings, there will often be restrictions on what tools you may use to take notes or record the session. For more information on newsgathering activities in court see the section on Recording Court Hearings.
Tips for Accessing Court Records
- Check to see if electronic access is available and affordable. Depending on the specific court, it is possible that some court records might be available online. The majority of federal court records are available through the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) system; you will need to register for an account, and there is a cost for accessing records. Unofficial copies of many federal court filings are also available for free at the RECAP Archive. Individual state courts are inconsistent about providing online access to records, particularly at the trial court level; where such access exists, there is often a cost associated. Some private databases, such as Lexis or Westlaw, also provide access to court filings, although the cost to subscribe to such services can be very expensive. If you are just looking for a court's decisions (as opposed to complaints, answers, motions, or any other filings by the parties), some courts publish their decisions on their own websites; you can also try free services such as Google Scholar. If none of these options work for you for the records you are seeking, you can visit the courthouse in person and request to see the physical copies of the documents.
- Know where to go for the records you want. Before visiting a courthouse, make sure you are going to the right place. Each court (whether a federal or state court, and whether at the trial, appellate, or supreme court level) will ordinarily only maintain records for that specific court's own cases and business. A little investigation before heading out the door can save substantial time driving around, so try to figure out which specific court is handling the case(s) in which you are interested. When you do reach the courthouse, your first stop should be the clerk's office. In a trial court, it is not uncommon for there to be separate clerks for civil cases and for criminal cases, so know which type of case you are researching. There is usually a desk staffed by assistant clerks, who can help you with your request.
- Make sure your request is clear. Even though court clerks will generally accept oral requests, draft a clear description of the records you wish to request before visiting the courthouse. Try to be as specific as possible. General requests -- such as "all files relating to X subject, Y person, or Z company" -- are unlikely to work and will often result in delays and additional costs. If you are interested in a particular case, try to identify the number assigned to the case by the court (often called the "docket number," "case number," or "index number") before visiting the courthouse. You might be able to find the docket number through some searching online, especially if others have written about the case before you.
- Be willing to compromise. You should anticipate that problems will arise. The court might need more time to locate and review the records, or the information might be covered by one or more exemptions. When appropriate, offer to revise or narrow the scope of your request to move things along.
- Be ready to deal with paper copies. Unless the court file for a case has been sealed, you should be able to review the original documents in the courthouse. However, the court will not let you remove official copies of court records from the courthouse, and it is unlikely that they will provide free copies of documents. It is more likely that you will be given access to a photocopier, so it is possible that you might need plenty of dimes or quarters if the documents you want are lengthy.
- File a lawsuit as a last resort. The simplest -- and often most effective -- remedy is to seek informal resolution of any disputes related to your request. A follow-up telephone call or email can sometimes get things back on track. If your informal approach is not successful, a lawsuit may be on the only way to get the records. Keep in mind, however, that obtaining court records through legal action can be a costly and drawn-out process.
Bear in mind that accessing court records is only one of many important fact-finding tools in your information gathering toolbox. For a broad overview of how you can investigate the actions of a full range of actors, including government, individuals, and corporations, see the Newsgathering section of this guide and check out the Center for Investigative Reporting's entertaining and inspirational guide, Raising Hell: A Citizens Guide to the Fine Art of Investigation.