Researchers of all types use court documents. Journalists use them in their reporting, government officials use them to track policy developments, and some individuals even read briefs and rulings out of general interest in an issue.
What’s the best way to find these documents? If you are employed at an organization that subscribes to legal databases, the process of finding court documents is greatly streamlined. But, for a person who doesn’t have access to subscriptions, the process can be a little more involved.
That’s because, despite the fact that court documents are public documents (with exceptions for restricted or sealed materials), they are not always freely available online. To access federal court documents (excluding the U.S. Supreme Court), you generally have to use PACER, and you have to pay a fee. While case documents at the state appellate level are mostly available online for free (at least in Texas they are), case materials at the state district court level or lower are not always accessible via an online database. (Here in Texas, district courts are moving towards that, however, and I’ve used the Travis County District Court’s free case search many times to retrieve electronic case documents).
Does this mean case documents are inaccessible to the average individual who’s not part of an organization that pays for subscriptions? No. In fact, for issues that receive widespread media attention, you can regularly find case documents at no cost on the Internet. Here are several methods that you can use.
Websites of organizations, coalitions, associations, etc.
Whatever issue you’re following, inevitably there’s an organization out there following it too. These organizations devote a lot of time and effort to tracking developments on a particular issue, and will often collect and make available key court documents related to litigation on that matter. The thorough coverage these sites provide means that in addition to documents at the state and federal appellate levels, they’ll also provide access to hard-to-find documents from the lower courts where a case may have originated. Here are a few examples of sites that do this, and there are many more depending on the issue.
This organization tracks same-sex marriage litigation through the federal, state, and lower-court levels. Their coverage of this issue is top-notch, making this site a great research and education tool.
If same-sex marriage is your issue, you might also check Equality Case Files on Scribd. I had good luck with it back in February when a Travis County probate judge found Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. ECF picked up the ruling almost immediately.
Run by the folks at Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, this site never fails to amaze me. They focus on major pending election administration cases in the U.S., and they appear to duplicate the entire docket for each case. A stunning amount of work and a great service for the public.
Payday lending is a big issue in Texas, as many people are calling for statewide regulation of this industry. There is currently only a patchwork of local laws and regulations in place, and these have prompted litigation in several Texas cities. The Texas Municipal League has pulled together a list of payday lending lawsuits in Texas, providing access to key documents for each case. This is an invaluable source because of the access to lower-court documents it provides.
More and more, online news sites are starting to provide links to the source documents being discussed in their articles. If a ruling or noteworthy brief is filed in a legal case that’s receiving widespread attention, you can usually find an article that links to it.
One of the best sites that does this type of linking is Jurist.org. Jurist.org covers a wide range of news topics (usually with a legal bent), and reliably links to court documents and other types of information mentioned in its articles. I rely on Jurist.org heavily when I’m tracking down a case for which I have very little information to go on. If the issue is of potential nationwide importance, they’ve usually got an article on it. Here’s one recent example: South Carolina removes confederate flag from statehouse, Jurist.org (July 10, 2015)
If you’re in Texas, another site that’s good about linking documents is the Texas Tribune. Check out their recent article covering Texas’ lawsuit against the EPA. In the second paragraph, you’ll see that the article provides a link to the latest appeals court order.
In Latest EPA Ruling, Both Sides Claim a Win, Texas Tribune (July 28, 2015)
The Tribune has also put together a fantastic site collecting Texas’ lawsuits against the federal government. Very helpful!
Online document repositories
I mentioned Scribd earlier, but I also wanted to be sure to mention DocumentCloud, a similar site that allows users to store and access electronic documents. Scribd and DocumentCloud are what many of those online news sites are using to store the documents they’re reporting on. Many of the documents in these repositories can be viewed and downloaded for free, making these two sites great places to find a court document that’s hitting the news. Pro-tip: The search in DocumentCloud is pretty clunky, so instead of searching by keyword, I first go to news organizations’ group pages, where I can usually tell if they’re going to have the document I want. For example, here’s the Austin American Statesman’s group page.
Google Scholar provides access to a wide array of academic and research materials, including case law materials. The site contains published opinions of state appellate and supreme court cases, as well as opinions from federal district, appellate, tax and bankruptcy courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Google Scholar contains published opinions only, so you’d have to look elsewhere if you’re interested in reading briefs, the original complaint, or any other document on a case docket. The site is free and easy to use, however, and is updated several times a week with new content.
For those interested, here’s a good tutorial from LLRX.com on how to find legal documents using Google Scholar.
Last but not least are the legal blogs out there. One of the more popular ones I know of is SCOTUSblog, which covers the U.S. Supreme Court. I won’t go into too many details about this one because I think most people know about it, but I will point out that Texas has it’s own version (SCOTXblog), which covers cases in the Texas Supreme Court. The site’s been useful to me for finding cases and just generally keeping up with what’s going on in that court.
Finding court documents on the Internet takes a little perseverance, but it’s definitely possible. You’re likely to have better luck if you’re following a case that has state or nationwide importance, but don’t let that stop you from looking. If you’ve gone through some of the steps outlined here and still nothing shows up, it could be because the case has been sealed or restricted from public access.
Image by Thomas Lefebvre