Researching Court Cases
Where you'll look for court cases - and how much sleuthing you'll need to do - depends on when and where the case took place. Cases tried in the United States could take place in federal, state, or municipal court, and you can't always tell which by the city name attached to the case. In New York City, for example, there are federal, state, and municipal courthouses. So if you can't find a case by searching one type of court, don't despair! You have options - see below.
It also helps to know the official title of the case you're trying to find, e.g. 'Attorney General vs. A book named "Naked Lunch".' You can usually find this information as a citation in a secondary source about the case. Sometimes a secondary source will even provide a link to the case itself. It's worth a look! Check the Cooper Union library databases (particularly HeinOline, JSTOR, the New York Times) and catalog for secondary sources.
In the United States you generally have the right to access court records, but you may have to pay for records or view them in person. You also may not be granted access to court records, if they're restricted for legal reasons. One example is family court records, because they involve minors.
- U.S. Federal Court. Federal courts are bound by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to provide access to public records when possible. The government runs a website that allows you to search across the types of federal court listed below: www.uscourts.gov/court-records/find-case-pacer
- U.S. Supreme Court: The big one! Being the most high profile, supreme court cases are often also the easiest to find, and can be searched directly here: www.supremecourt.gov/docket/docket.aspx
- District Court: There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
- Appellate Court: hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies
- State court: State courts are not held to FOIA the way federal courts are, and they all have their own systems and laws for accessing public records. Some state court websites, such as that of Massachusetts, make it really obvious how to search for cases. Others, like Alabama, are more opaque. Sometimes you might need to go to the contact page and just call someone - sounds old school, but so are courts!
- Municipal court: To search municipal court records, you will probably need to first find out if the case was civil or criminal, since county clerk websites will often have different search functions for each. Municipal court are the least likely to have digitized their court records, and sometimes you can only find the barest details, such as in the case summary for the State of Ohio vs. Dennis Barrie, a 1990 obscenity trial dealing with Mapplethorpe photos. But you wouldn't know that from the summary! You may have to pay to obtain a full case record.
- Outside of the U.S.: If the court case you're researching took place in another country, the case records may or may not be available, depending on the laws of that country. Just like with researching U.S. court cases, the first step towards discovery is finding out when and where the case took place, then find the website for that court. The United States Department of Justice has curated a site of information and resources on foreign courts and law: www.justice.gov/jmd/ls/foreignsources
We're here to help! Come to the library or email firstname.lastname@example.org with all your burning questions about finding court cases.