Finding Federal Court Records for Free [Mostly!]

“Court records” can mean literally anything of public interest filed with the courts.  But some of the juiciest stuff is to be found in criminal cases and civil lawsuits.  Ron Arons has an excellent book out called Wanted:US Criminal Records–Sources & Research Methodology.  He describes the state and federal repositories for these records.  I’ve used his book several times in the last year to successfully find criminal records for ancestors that I have been researching.  I highly recommend Ron’s book.Wanted

There is however, a slight chance for the lucky among us, that we could find certain federal criminal records and civil lawsuits relevant to your research online–all free (or almost free), courtesy of good ole Uncle Sam.

Back to Basics

Whether you’re using Ron’s book, or you’re trying to find certain records online, it helps to remember your basic civics.  The United States has two systems of  courts: the federal courts established under the Constitution of the United States, and the state courts established under the constitutions and laws of the various states.  We are concerned here with the federal courts.  The Constitution says that the judiciary of the United States shall consist of “one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” The “inferior courts” include 13 courts of appeals and 94 district courts (and some other critters known as “Article I courts,” but we  will take those up at some other time).

The best way to study this pyramid is from the bottom up.  Each state and territory, as well as the District of Columbia, contains one or more federal judicial districts.  California for example, has four federal judicial districts: the Northern District, based in San Francisco; the Eastern District, based in Sacramento and Fresno; the Central District based in Los Angeles; and the Southern District, based in San Diego.  Each of these districts has a district court, which may consist of one or more district judges, and usually one or more “subordinate” judicial officers, known as magistrate judges.  These are the trial courts in the federal system: the courts of first instance. These courts are where federal judicial matters generally are first commenced (with some exceptions not relevant to our discussion here).  These courts are where witnesses are heard, juries are impaneled, verdicts and judgments reached and entered.

The 94 district courts are organized into 12 judicial circuits.  Each judicial circuit represents a court of appeals.   For example, the Ninth Circuit, the largest of the 13 circuits [okay, now, is it 12 or 13? We'll get to that in a minute.] hears appeals  from the district courts in the states of California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, Hawaii, as well as from the courts in Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands.  Most of the circuits are identified by numbers 1 through 11. We get to 13 circuits by including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit*, which is like the other circuit courts of appeals, except that it hears appeals only from the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia; and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which is a specialized court with jurisdiction over patent cases, claims against the federal government, certain trade disputes, and other issues. There are no district courts permanently nested within the Federal Circuit.

The graphic below shows the whole U.S. federal court system with which we are concerned.

US Courts

The circuits are color-coded and within state borders, faint gray lines are visible which denote the districts within the state. For example, the close-up below depicts the 11th Circuit, comprised of the federal district courts in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.   The 11th Circuit’s main office is in Atlanta, but the appeals court has locations in each of the three states. You can also more easily see the district lines.  Georgia, for example, has U.S. District Courts in its Northern, Middle, and Southern Districts.

US Courts - 11th Cir

And of course at the top of the heap is the United States Supreme Court.  The Chief Justice of the United States presides not only over the Supreme Court, but is also the head of the entire federal judiciary.

Over the years, and perhaps especially during the tenure of the late Chief Justice Rehnquist, the judicial branch has made tremendous strides in unifying, modernizing, and streamlining its procedures, and access to its records by the public.  One of the Rehnquist-era innovations is called PACER, which stands for “public access to court electronic records.”

PACER is a great tool for finding relatively recent federal criminal, civil, and bankruptcy filings, especially those since 1990. PACER can be found on the judicial branch’s homepage, www.uscourts.gov or on its own page, www.pacer.gov. Literally anybody in the world with an Internet connection can access PACER; you do not have to be a lawyer or a judge or in any way affiliated with the courts.

Here’s how PACER works: when attorneys file papers with the court, the papers are scanned, digitized, and organized into case files. Most federal courts have or require electronic filing of case documents.  The files are posted in the Case Management/Electronic Case Filing  (CM/ECF) system. PACER is essentially a public portal search into CM/ECF.  We will demonstrate PACER’s search functions.

But first, a couple of caveats about federal court records and PACER.  The federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction.  That is to say that the Constitution and Congress define e the powers of the federal courts.  So, for example, you’ll find no divorce cases, no small claims cases, and generally no probate or juvenile cases in federal courts.  You may find personal injury cases, but only if the opposing parties are from two different states aand the amount of money at issue is greater than $75,000.  You can find federal criminal cases, bankruptcy cases, cases brought against the federal government and cases brought by the federal government against companies or individuals.

The second caveat is that most courts’ electronic records go back a very limited period of time, most commonly to the 1980s.  However, many courts have case documents back into the 1950s and even the 1930s.

Using PACER

Go to the PACER homepage at www.pacer.gov.  You can also reach it by clicking on the “Court Records” tab on the United States Courts web site [www.uscourts.gov]. Once at the PACER homepage, go to the “Register” tab.   You will want to register for “Case Search Only.”

Pacer home

register pacer

PACER Case Search Only

Anyone with access to a computer can register for a “case search only” account.  There is no registration fee.  However, if you download pages from PACER, the fee is eight cents per page.  But the government has a policy of not invoicing the fee unless and until the fees reach $10 in any one calendar quarter;  for most users, therefore, many searches will be free. You do not need a credit card to register.  But if you do input credit card info, you will receive your password electronically; without a credit card, you have to wait for the Pony Express to arrive.

pacer registration part 2

registration pacer credit card

Once you have your PACER login and password, click on “Find a Case.” You will have two choices here: you may either search the entire PACER locator,or you can search individual court web sites, if you have an idea where the records you seek might be.

PACER find a case 1

Let’s first try the PACER nationwide locator.  On this page, we can see that we have the choice of which types of cases, we want to search: appellate, bankruptcy, civil, criminal, or multidistrict litigation.  This last category is very rare and so we won’t go into that.

PACER find a case 2

Let’s look for criminal cases involving one of my family names, Sanford. we can search all courts, if we want; or we can be more specific.  Recalling that the Sanfords were primarily in the South, and more Texas, we’ll want to search the circuit that includes Texas. Looking at our map of the federal judiciary, we see that Texas is in the Fifth Circuit.  So we’ll start there. We scroll down to the Fifth Circuit, under “Region.”  Then we type the name Sanford in the party box, and click search. Caution: do not check the “exact match” box unless you have included a complete name consisting of at least a first and last name.

PACER Find a case 3

View video demo

Our search reveals 30 records of criminal cases involving parties with the name Sanford in the courts of the Fifth Circuit. In the column headed “Court,” there is a code which tells us, which court in the Fifth Circuit that particular case is pending.  The code is easy to read: the first two letters are the state abbreviation and the second two letters indicate the district in the state where the case is pending. For example, the first case on the list, that of Andreko Deshan Sanford, is pending in the court identified as “msndce.” that means the Northern District of Mississippi.  Going back to the US courts page,  we can ascertain that the United States District Court for Northern District of Mississippi sits mainly in Oxford, but has branches in Greenville and Aberdeen.

PACER Find a Case 4

We were looking for Texas Stanfords so we can proceed in one of several ways.  We can filter these results by court by going to the filter tab, and selecting courts that began with “tx.” Or we can start a new search. This will take us back to the first page of the Pacer case locator.  We’ll go under the criminal tab again.  Under “Region,”  we’ll scroll down to Texas without indicating a specific district.

View video demo

PACER Find a Case 5

A search for “Sanford” this time yields 19 records in all U.S. District Courts in Texas.

PACER Find a case 6

For purposes of illustration, let’s choose the case of Misty Sanford (I do not know her to be one of my Sanford relatives, but who knows?). We  click on her case number and we get the following page:

PACER Find a Case 7PACER Find a Case 7a

There is a variety of information available on this page, but most people are going to be interested  in the documents in the case. To see the documents in the case, do not go to “View a document,” unless you already know the document number [most likely you won't know the document number, because you will not have seen the docket].  Instead, go to “Docket Report” and see this page:

PACER Find a Case 7b

There’s no need to enter any additional information on this page, simply sort by the drop-down menu to “Oldest Date First,” then click on “Run Report.” The following page appears:

This shows us a summary of the case against Misty Sanford.  She’s charged with cruelty to animals, unlawful entry and failure to register her pets; not exactly the crimes of the century.  If we scroll down further, we come to a list of documents in the case.  At this point in her case there only two documents.  Before we look at them, notice the box at the bottom of the page.  It tells us that we’ve been charged eight cents for viewing the current page.  Remember we won’t be actually be charged for this, unless our charges in this calendar quarter exceed $10.  And furthermore, if a document that we pull up exceeds 30 pages, we only get charged for the first 30 pages.

The documents are numbered with hyperlinked numerals.  For example, document number one in this case is called the information. This is often the first pleading in a federal criminal case. When we click on this document, we get the following page:

PACER Find a Case 9

Note that since the document is four pages long, we been charged $0.32 for pulling it up.  Click on “View Document” and a PDF version of the document appears.

We said earlier that the most common cases were from the 1980’s and 1990’s. If you are interested in the records of a specific court, check out the tab labeled “Court Information” at the top of the Pacer case locator page. A pop-box will appear giving dates of the earliest cases in that court’s electronic file.

PACER Court Info 1

PACER Court Info 2

Some of the older cases do not have the actual documents scanned in.  Instead they have textual descriptions of the contents of the records.  This is where you want to get Ron Arons’ book and find out where the actual records are kept.

Craig

2 Responses to “Finding Federal Court Records for Free [Mostly!]”

  • Susan says:

    What a wonderful overview! Thank you. A whole new resource for me to examine.

  • Martin says:

    How many genealogical brick walls have been broken down via federal court cases? Not many–possibly none. Federal law is completely searchable in appellate and supreme court cases, but those are just matters of law. District court case opinions (about only 15% are published and maybe as much as 30% are online) are also just matters of law. Even when you can use a database such as Pacer (and you don’t mention the date restrictions–you just say “recent”), not all facts may be in those documents and it is the facts a genealogist would need.

    Stick with local and state court cases–that’s where you find genealogical gems. And all those for the time period before 1960 are not online. {with rare exceptions such as the Salem Witch Trials}. Go to an Archives!!!!


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