If you perform lots of electronic docket research in federal, state, and local jurisdictions, you know how time consuming it can be to access the many courts around the country. Unless you are already familiar with a particular court’s online accessibility, finding quick, reliable, and inclusive fresh case data can be challenging.
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Almost all federal district courts are now utilizing the federal judiciary’s CM/ECF system, which can be easily accessed with a PACER account. This system provides public access to each court’s docket database, and includes document images and electronic filing. Currently there are over 27 million civil, criminal, and bankruptcy cases on CM/ECF, with access to federal appellate courts coming soon. In addition, researchers can also access a nationwide case listing database through the PACER US Party/Case Index. While these databases are inexpensive, easy to use, and improve slightly with each new release, from an expert researcher’s point of view their search capabilities are limited.
The availability and scope of state, county, and local court dockets, and case summary information online varies greatly. Each jurisdiction has its own rules and restrictions that determine what shall be deemed public or private and how their data may be used. For example, some courts allow the public to access their data, but do not allow commercial vendors to aggregate and resell it. Also, since so many different state courts use different docket formats and methods of producing case data, it can be difficult and time consuming for commercial docket data aggregators to add jurisdictions to their collections. With this in mind, it is likely that a good docket portal may contain access to more courts than a commercial database provider. However, state courts may require the creation of individual accounts to access their dockets, which can initially slow down your research efforts.
Updated Case Data
Since a portal simply links directly to each court’s public access web site, how often the case information is updated depends on each court’s procedures. For example, federal district CM/ECF court data is live. After a docket entry is made by a court clerk or an attorney, it appears almost instantly online. But many state, county, and local courts warn that their web dockets should not be relied upon and are not updated daily. It is important to investigate how often a court’s case data is updated if you are checking their site regularly with the purpose of monitoring a case’s activity.
While some researchers collect dozens of bookmarks or rely upon their Intranet for most courts that they access, a more efficient method is a portal - a single site that maintains links to all available courts. A docket portal functions as a pathway for researchers to access case dockets in all available jurisdictions very quickly.
However, as an alternative to accessing cases through a portal, researchers can also use vendor databases to locate docket information. These sites collect data from many jurisdictions, provide a single user interface, uniform dockets, and advanced search functionality.
So which provides better results for locating and obtaining court case dockets, portals or databases? It often depends upon your exact goal, your deadline, your budget, and your skills as a researcher. As with most online research, accessing several sources is often required to obtain the best results.