Accessing Court Documents – Journalist’s Guide
Most court documents are available online, but judges may seal case records in some circumstances. Here is an overview.
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Most documents in federal courts – appellate, district, and bankruptcy – are filed electronically, using a system called Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF). The media and public may view most filings found in this system via the Public Access to Court Electronic Records service, better known as PACER. Reporters who cover courts should consider establishing a PACER account and becoming familiar with the system. Users can open an account and receive technical support at pacer.gov.
Most documents in federal courts are filed electronically using CM/ECF. The media and public may view most filings found in this system.
Documents not available to the public are discussed in Sealed Documents and Closed Hearings. Even in public court documents, however, some information is not available. Federal rules require that anyone filing a federal court document must redact certain personal information in the interest of privacy, including Social Security or taxpayer identification numbers, dates of birth, names of minor children, financial account information, and in criminal cases, home addresses.
Once case information has been filed or updated in the CM/ECF system, that information is immediately available through PACER. Some courts provide free automatic case notification through Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds or through read-only CM/ECF access. In courts where RSS is available, PACER users can opt to receive automatic notification of case activity, summarized text, and links to the document and docket report.
For cases that draw substantial media and public interest, some courts have created special sections of their websites, called “Cases of Interest” or “Notable Cases,” where docket entries, court orders, and sometimes, trial exhibits may be posted. Some courts also use an email/text alert service during high-profile cases, to alert reporters to major filings and other information.
Most documents and docket sheets for cases that opened before 1999 are in paper format and therefore may not be available online. Paper files on closed cases eventually are transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) or they are destroyed in accordance with a records retention schedule approved by both the Judicial Conference of the United States and NARA.
Any search for older paper documents should begin by contacting the court where the case was filed. As a secondary source, such documents may be available from NARA.
User fees are charged to access documents in PACER, and the current fee structure is available at Electronic Public Access Fee Schedule. Fees are billed quarterly, and all fees are waived if the bill does not exceed a specified limit in a billing quarter.
Written opinions are published on court websites and are available for free on PACER. Many courts also publish free, text-searchable opinions on the Federal Digital System, or FDsys, operated by the U.S. Government Publishing Office.
Electronic records can be viewed in the clerk of court’s office for free, as can any paper records that have not been destroyed or transferred to the National Archives. But per-page fees are charged for printing or copying court documents in the clerk’s office.
In certain circumstances, judges have the authority to seal additional documents or to close hearings that ordinarily would be public. Reasons can include protecting victims and cooperating informants, and avoiding the release of information that might compromise an ongoing criminal investigation or a defendant’s due process rights.
- Courts sometimes seal documents that contain sensitive material, such as classified information affecting national security or information involving trade secrets.
- Criminal case documents and hearing transcripts are sometimes sealed to protect cooperating witnesses from retaliation.
- The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide for protective orders during discovery to protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense.
- Bankruptcy court records are public, but under the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure, the court may withhold certain commercial information, any “scandalous or defamatory matter,” or information that may create an undue risk of identity theft or other injury.
When a party to a case moves to seal a document or to close a hearing, a record of the motion can be found in PACER. Media organizations sometimes file motions opposing such requests.
Generally, when a party to a case moves to seal a document or to close a hearing, a record of the motion can be found in PACER. As noted in Media Access in Brief, media organizations sometimes file motions opposing such requests.
Civil litigants may ask judges to issue a protective order forbidding parties from disclosing any information or materials gathered during discovery. Deposition records often remain in the custody of the lawyers, and the media do not have a right of access to discovery materials not filed with the court.
When a civil case is settled, that fact is usually apparent from the public record. However, the terms of settlement and any discovery records may remain confidential.
The Federal Judicial Center provides comprehensive explanations of these issues in two downloadable booklets: Sealing Court Records and Proceedings: A Pocket Guide and Confidential Discovery: A Pocket Guide on Protective Orders.