How to Find Court Cases

Three Parts:Planning a Search for Court CasesLocating Cases in the Federal Court SystemLocating a state court case

Court documents are the public record of the American legal system. Whether your interest is in historical research, curiosity, or needing documents for your own legal dispute, you can usually find what you need with a few basic bits of information. Modern technology has brought many court records out of the dusty warehouses and onto the Internet. Even the records not yet digitized can be accessed with a letter or phone call.

Part 1
Planning a Search for Court Cases

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    Identify if it is a state or federal case. There are two separate court systems in the United States. Each state has its own independent legal system. There is a separate court structure for each of the 3,000+ counties, as well as an over-arching appellate and supreme court system in each state. Operating parallel to the state courts is a federal system of 94 district courts, 94 Bankruptcy courts, 13 circuit courts of appeal, and the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).[1]
    • Each court system has its own case numbering system and court case storage and retrieval protocol.
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    Determine which state had jurisdiction over the case. Even if you know the case number, you must know the state where it was heard. There are some common case numbering protocols, so there may be same or similarly numbered cases in many states.
    • If you have any court documents or letters for the case, the county and state will be on the front page of the document.
    • If you know where at least one of the parties lived, that is a good clue as to where the case was heard.
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    Narrow it down to the city or county. If it is a state court case, it will have been heard in the district court located in the county seat.[2] Federal districts cover a fixed area and are bounded by state and county lines. For example, if you know the case originated in Little Rock, Arkansas, you know that it was heard in the Eastern District of Arkansas.[3]
    • If the case is high profile, an online search may give you more information about the city, county, and state where it was heard.

Part 2
Locating Cases in the Federal Court System

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    Find United States Supreme Court cases. SCOTUS has its own website system.[4] Court opinions for the last five terms are grouped together for easy review.[5] For example, in 2014, there were 76 opinions issued by the court.[6] They are listed on the website in numerical order. You can click on each case or look for one of the party's names to identify the opinion.
    • There is also a text search that can help you find a case. If you don't know the names, but know some of the keywords, for example "same sex marriage," a text search will show you all documents in the archive with that search term.[7]
    • This search function is very helpful to find newer opinions that have not yet been published in the United States Reporter.
    • The case citation search function is helpful for finding older cases that have been published in the Reporter.[8] You can enter the name of one or more parties, city, or any other keywords you think may be helpful. The result will be the citation that you can use to find the SCOTUS opinion.
      • For example, the citation for Roe v. Wade is 410 U.S. 113 (1973). This means that the opinion can be found in the 410th volume of the United States Reporter on page 113 and it was decided in 1973.
      • The non-profit has digitized the first 540 volumes of the U.S. Reporter dating from 1754 to 2005.[9] With the citation, you can find the opinion in a matter of minutes. The site takes donations,[10] but you can read and print SCOTUS opinions free of charge.
    • If you have the names of the parties or the citation, SCOTUS opinions can also usually be found through an online search.
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    Locate a federal district or circuit court case from 1995 to the present. Once you know which district or appellate circuit court heard the case, federal court documents are fairly easy to find. PACER is short for "Public Access to Court Electronic Records."[11] PACER has documents including complaints, briefs, memos, miscellaneous filings, and opinions for federal courts dating back to 1995. The system is updated every night.
    • To register for a free PACER account, you must provide your name, date of birth, address, country, phone number, and email address.[12]
    • PACER offers free step-by-step training on how to access the site and find cases. [13]
    • In general you need to know which federal court you are interested in, the case number, or the name of at least one party. The more information you have, the better your search results will be.
    • Court opinions are free to read. However, for all of the other documents, unless you are a party to the case, you will be charged .10 per page to read, download, or print the pages.
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    Locate a pre-1995 federal court case. PACER has some documents that date back to 1995, but there can be gaps for cases decided before 1999. For older cases, you will have to request them from the district or circuit court clerk.
    • Each district has a slightly different procedure and different charge. It is recommended that you contact the court clerk's office by phone so you do it correctly.[14]
    • You must have the case number. Court clerks will not do research for you. It is also recommended that you know what document you are looking for. A request "for a copy of the court file," may result in several boxes of documents and a several hundred dollar charge for copying and shipping.
    • Although each court has a specific procedure, in general, you will request copies of court documents in writing. A typical request might include, "To the clerk of the [eastern/western/central state] district court. I would like to request a copy of the complaint and final opinion [or other documents] in case number [case number] between [parties]. Please send to [your name and address and phone]. I understand there may be a charge for this service. Please contact me about the charges at [phone] or send an invoice with the documents. Sincerely [name and signature.]
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    Perform an online search. Many federal court cases, especially relevant or high profile cases, have been referenced in news reports and documented in online archives. Using your favorite search engine, you can search by case number, party name, or keywords from the case and find information and sometimes court documents that you can read and print.
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    Use your local law library. Law libraries are repositories of older bound case reporters combined with computer search capabilities. Many law libraries have access to professional grade legal databases like Westlaw and Loislaw.
    • There are two sources of law libraries. The first is at law schools.[15] Most are open to the public and the librarians and student clerks are an excellent resource to help you locate the case number and court opinion you are seeking. Most law school libraries have self-service copiers.
    • Most state and county bar associations also maintain law libraries for public use. The collections will likely be limited to state and local law, including bound case volumes, reference books, and computer search terminals. Law libraries are usually located near the courthouse. Ask the court clerk for directions or contact your local bar association for more information.[16] You are free to take notes and many libraries will either have a self-service copier or you can take books to the clerk to copy for a per-page fee. If the facility allows cell phones, you can also use your cell phone camera to capture an image of the page.

Part 3
Locating a state court case

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    Locate the county courthouse.[17] In state court cases, knowing the right county is key. Each county in a state will use the same general case number system. For example, in every county in Kansas, the tenth criminal case filed in 2015 will be numbered "2015-CR-10". But if it is filed in Bourbon County, it will be prefaced with "BB," in Crawford County, it will be "CR" and so on.[18] Therefore, finding the correct county is the first step.
    • Local newspapers are a good source to narrow down which county you need. Many publish weekly or months lists of criminal cases, divorces, and other legal disputes filed in the county.
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    Go to the county courthouse. Most counties in the United States have a public access computer terminal. At this terminal, you can access the public court records. Typically, you can search by party name or case number. The systems are not consistent, some systems give you more control over the search parameters than others. If you have any problem, ask the court clerk for assistance.
    • Depending on how busy they are, state court clerks, especially in smaller counties are very willing to help you figure out the case number.
    • You can take a notebook and take notes, but be aware of others that may want to use the computer.
    • Documents may be available to print out for a fee, typically .25 per page.
    • In most cases, you can view the public courthouse file. Go to the court clerk and ask about the procedure to view the case file. Do know that you cannot do this anonymously. The clerk will ask you to sign a check-out form that remains part of the public record.
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    Hire a local attorney. If you are requesting court files because you will be involved in litigation, you may want to consider hiring an attorney to represent you. Otherwise, if you need assistance with your research, a private attorney will help you locate the documents that you need. This is also helpful if you are searching for state court documents, which are often not available online, in another state. Expect to pay around $100 per hour for the attorney or $50 per hour for one of his clerks.[19]


  • Not all court records are public. Certain information relating to cases is usually held in safekeeping by the court and not distributed to the public. You will probably not be able to access this information except through a court order. The confidential information includes information about minors, the names and addresses of crime victims, health and mental health reports, social services reports, and domestic violence cases that have been sealed by the court.

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Categories: Civil Litigation