Keeping up with Electronic Docket and Document Retrieval

By Paul Bush
October 22, 2001

The days of dialing into a slow, unsophisticated, court electronic bulletin board in order to obtain case dockets are over.  Not only can the public now obtain dockets via the internet from most Federal District, Bankruptcy, and Appellate courts, but an increasing number of state courts and other agencies are also offering case information online.  In addition, the number of imaged litigation and bankruptcy case documents available on the world wide web is quickly increasing and is expected to gain acceptance over traditional methods of document retrieval.  PDF is the format of choice, with TIFF and other formats being utilized to a much lesser degree.

There are a wide variety of web-based systems that can be used to access case information.  Some case information systems are administered by the government such as Web Pacer, CM/ECF and Racer® , while other third-party vendors such as CourtLink and CourtExpress offer identical case information, with the addition of many useful features, functions, bells and whistles.  Both the government and commercial systems have undergone various improvements and advancements over the last few years; the most pronounced being the significant increase of the total number of courts now accessible online.  The two types of systems tend to have more similarities than differences, but with so many new web resources now available, it can be difficult to keep up with the ever changing technology.

Learning which courts are available and how to access their case information will allow your firm to fully utilize the capabilities of electronic research.  Obtaining dockets and document images via the internet can improve efficiency and lower costs when conducting case research and monitoring.

Federal Government Systems

Web Pacer
account activation fees.  This system allows courts to offer docket and document image data through a clean, reliable interface.  Most Web Pacer court dockets are centrally indexed within the Pacer U.S. Party/Case Index database.  Results from this database are linked to corresponding dockets in most Web Pacer, CM/ECF and Racer court web sites.

This system appears to be similar to Web Pacer at first glance, but is more sophisticated allowing electronic case filing, automated emailing, in addition to docket and document image retrieval.  CM/ECF will largely accelerate and strengthen the somewhat slowed implementation of electronic case filing in the US.  The Pacer service center has recently dedicated a portion of its web site to CM/ECF.  This system is scheduled to replace every federal courts' internal docketing system by 2005.

Racer is a product created by Wade Systems, LLC.  This system resembles Web Pacer and CM/ECF, also offering case dockets and document images.  Other products of Wade allow for electronic filing and other internal court docketing.

So which is better?  What do people prefer?
An informal *poll held on Legal Dockets Online suggests Web Pacer is the system of choice for researchers, followed by Racer, and CM/ECF.  Although it is likely researchers do prefer using Web Pacer, the results seem to be related to the number of courts available for each system.  So the results of this poll may simply be reflecting availability as opposed to preference. 

Web Pacer, CM/ECF, and Racer are all inexpensive fast web-based methods of obtaining case dockets and document images.  Their availability and reliability have been improved, as well the Administrative Office of the US Court's billing procedures and customer support.
*One particular function to be aware of is the "Universal Login" feature.  Once you login to any of these three systems, your client/matter will not change unless you specifically change it, even when accessing different courts.

Some major features of  Web Pacer, CM/ECF, and Racer

Web Pacer



Jurisdictions available*

Most Federal District, Bankruptcy, and Appellate Courts, with some exceptions including  NYSD and CA2. AKB, AZB, CAND, CASB, DCD,  DEB, GANB, LAMB, MIWD, MOWD, MOWB, NYED,  NYSB, NCWB, OHND, OHNB, ORD,  TXWB, VAEB, and WAWB. ALSD, ARED, CAED, GASB, DEB, HIB, IASD, IASB, IDD, IDB, MOEB, NVB, NJB, NCEB,  NDB, OKND, OKNB, OKEB, PAMD, PRB, TXND, VAWB, VTD, WAEB, and WYB.
Document images available? Yes, for cases filed in the following courts: ALND, CACB, CASD, CASB, CTB, FLSD, GASD,  IANB, KSB, LAED, LAMD, LAWD,  LAWB, MAD, MAB, NCEB, NCMB, NCWD, PAMB, RIB, SCB, SDB, TXEB, TXSD, TXSB, UTB, VTB, WAWD, WVNB, WVSD, WVSB, and WIWB. Yes, all courts. Yes, all courts.
Searchable database of cases? Yes, the U.S. Party/Case Index is a consolidated listing of cases from most web Pacer courts searchable by Nature of Suit, litigant, filing date, and SSN/TIN for bankruptcies. Yes, most courts are indexed in the USPCI database. Yes, most courts are indexed in the USPCI database.
Administered by the Administrative Office of the US Courts? Yes Yes Yes
PACER account required? Yes, including the USPCI database, EXCEPT KYWD, AKD (via email), and ARWD (via email). Yes, except: NMD and NMB require an separate "ACE" account. Yes, except DEB, HIB, IDD, IDB, NJB, NCEB, PRB, VAWB, WAEB still do not require an account.
Cost .07$ per page, including document images, EXCEPT:  KYWD, AKD (via email), and ARWD(via email) are still free. .07$ per page, including document images. .07$ per page, including document images, EXCEPT: DEB, HIB, IDD, IDB, NJB, NCEB, PRB, VAWB, WAEB, are still free.

* New courts will continue to be added.

State Case Information Systems

The federal courts have traditionally led the way in public electronic case information access.  But now many state level courts are upgrading their technology and offering web-based criminal and civil case information as well.

The different state court databases are not unified under one system such as web Pacer, but instead are designed and maintained individually by separate commercial vendors and court personnel.  There are too many new state court databases to mention in this article, but I would like to mention several states that have the greatest number of courts offering free public case information access.  California, Florida, Ohio, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Wisconsin maintain case information from various courts including: Circuit, Common Pleas, County, and Municipal.  These and many other state courts are often also accessible using many third-party vendors.  As with federal courts, electronic case filing and retrieval is slowly gaining momentum in acceptance and usage.  In addition to federal and state courts, various "case" information is also now available online free of charge from the United States Tax Court, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the Department of Transportation.

Third-Party Vendors

With direct web access case information systems available, why would you use a commercial web site to obtain dockets and document images for you?  Third-party vendors such as CourtLink and CourtExpress, access the same federal court databases Pacer, CM/ECF, and Racer do, but also provide additional state court jurisdictions and more robust  functionality.  CourtLink and CourtExpress are currently the two most comprehensive sites primarily focused on electronic docket and document retrieval.  These vendors focus on "one stop shopping", offering a system that combines web-based docket , document retrieval, and filing, with traditional methods of research and retrieval.  Like the previous government systems, these services have more similarities than differences.

CourtLink's CaseStream® is a web-based service that enables users to customize a large array of personal preferences to retrieve relevant case information for over 850 federal, state and local courts.  The latest upgrade of this eAccess service consolidated many functions, added jurisdictions and adjusted various search costs.  The upgrade, called "mycasestream®" is the successful combination of many different databases and functionality created by CourtLink and its former competitor MarketSpan.  Within CaseStream, "Alert" and "Track" features can be set up to automatically notify a user of newly filed court records/cases as well as new case activity.  Users can also request electronic documents from a court, or through CourtLink's partnerships with document retrieval companies, the document can be sent to the user via traditional means. CourtLink currently offers the largest number of federal and state web-based court dockets of any third-party vendor.  In addition, CourtLink also offers a web service for electronic case filing, CourtLink eFile, it obtained when they merged with JusticeLink, Inc., developer of the electronic filing service and a middleware product for courts.

CourtExpress provides docket access to many federal courts and Connecticut state courts, allowing users to search, find and retrieve current case information. Their additional search tools: "RainMaker", "ClientWatch" and "Due Diligence", allow users to track new cases by a combination of subject matter, party names and time period.  Dockets and complaints can be pushed to users for any new cases filed.  A recent additional enhancement, "ClearCase", is a searchable database of federal district court dockets in New York, and is expected to add additional jurisdictions.  CourtExpress also offers document images from select federal district and bankruptcy courts.  Additionally, document copies can be ordered and tracked online from any courthouse in the country.  They provide these documents by utilizing their long existing nationwide document retrieval business, formerly known as RIS.

Some major features of CaseStream and CourtExpress



Jurisdictions Available*

Most Federal District, Bankruptcy, and Appellate Courts, and many state courts including: DE Chancery, New York Supreme & County Clerk, as well as state courts in AZ, CA, CT, FL, MD, MO, NJ, NC, OR, TX, WA, and WI.  full listing Most Federal District, Bankruptcy and Appellate Courts and: US Supreme Court, US Tax Court, and CT state courts.  For full listing go to CourtExpress
Document images available? Yes for cases filed in the following courts: ALMB, ARED, AZB, CAND, CACB, CASB, CTB, DEB, DCD, GANB, IDD, IDB, IANB, IASB, ILNB, LAMB, LAWB, MAB, MEB, MOWD, MOWB, NYED, NYSB, NCEB, NCMB, NCWB, OHND, ORD, PAMB, PRB, SCB, TNMB, TXEB, TXMB, TXSB, UTB, VTB, VAEB, WAEB, WAWB, WVNB, WVSB, WIWB, WYB. Yes, for cases filed in the following courts: ALND, CAEB, CACB, CASD, CTB, DEB, FLSD, GASD, INND, LAED, LAWD, MAD, MAB, NCWD, TXND, TXEB, VAEB, WVSD, WVNB, TXSD.
Full text searchable docket database? Yes, "Historical" allows full text searching of most Federal District and Bankruptcy Courts, for which dockets are available. Yes, "ClearCase" allows full text searching in all NY federal district courts and is expected to add more jurisdictions.
Online document ordering? Yes, document orders are forwarded to various retrieval companies you choose. Yes, documents are retrieved by CourtExpress, and orders can be tracked using CaseTrack.
Docket tracking and alerting? Yes Yes
Other tracking and alerting? Yes, track by subject matter, litigants, attorneys, judges, bankruptcy chapters and debtors. Yes, track by subject matter, and litigants.
Cost Complete Explanation Partial Explanation
Extras Additional courts are available from customer service. "Legal Billing Reports" and "Expert Witness Service." 

* New courts will continue to be added.

Additional Third-Party Vendors

In addition to CourtLink and CourtExpress there are many other third-party vendors offering case information on the web.  Two in particular I would like to highlight are CourtAlert and Virtual Docket®.  These sites are focused on providing case information in New York and Delaware respectively. 

CourtAlert provides access to civil court dockets (for free), decision images, calendar, judge information and case tracking for the New York Supreme Court in thirteen counties. This site downloads case information from the Supreme Court and NY County Clerk four times daily and alerts users when a change occurs.  These alerts are delivered throughout the life of a case via email, fax or PDA.  Their "Suggested Watch List"  automatically suggests cases to track for which your firm has appeared in.  In addition, CourtAlert will be providing electronic decision tracking and document retrieval for New York Federal District Courts next month. Read the detailed announcement (pdf)

Virtual Docket
Virtual Docket provides access to unofficial dockets (for free) and many document images in Delaware District, Bankruptcy, Chancery, and Supreme Courts.  Virtual Docket is one of several services provided by Parcels, Inc. and is clearly the largest provider of Delaware court document images on the internet today.


It's easy to see that the technology of federal courts, state courts and commercial vendors is rapidly improving, expanding and evolving.  When litigation and bankruptcy case dockets or documents are needed, obtaining them can easily be achieved with the click of a mouse.  Additionally, web-based case information retrieval and filing can possibly reduce the need for paper, accelerate the legal process and lower your client's bills. 

As court administered and commercial vendor web sites continue to improve and add jurisdictions, the question becomes not "if" case information is available online, but "where" it is available online.  Being able to quickly access this type of case information  will allow your firm to have several options when researching and monitoring litigation and bankruptcy cases.

But with technology and convenience comes responsibility.  Privacy concerns are always heightened when increasing exposure to public records.  Just as new technology involving court records is being introduced and implemented, additional definitions and  boundaries for what is "public", and how data is accessed, will also continue to be redefined.  So what is now accessible online may not necessarily always be available online, such as certain criminal and bankruptcy information.

Public records, and specifically case information has been available from many different sources on the internet for many years and is being widely utilized by attorneys, court personnel,  and others.  Who the providers are and what exactly is made available is constantly changing.  Keeping current with court technology, research methods and online tools may just allow your firm to obtain case information before your adversary, clients, or even future clients do.

* Poll was conducted on home page from 8/11/01 - 11/8/02.  WP (172) 48%, Racer (32) 9%, CM/ECF (40) 11%, Don't have a PACER account (113) 32%.  357 total votes.