Online Availability of Case Information
Many courts are working to set up a CM/ECF system.
By Paul M. Bush
May 5, 2003
SPECIAL TO THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL
Significant progress has been made on improving the online availability of litigation and bankruptcy dockets and document images. More and more federal and state courts are beginning to add or to expand and improve upon their existing online data capabilities. Almost all federal district, appellate and bankruptcy courts now offer access to case information online in some form. This initiative has been officially mandated in §205(a)(5) of the E-Government Act of 2002, 44 U.S.C. 3501 (2002).
State courts have been much slower in their implementation of online case databases, but certain states are making strides in this area as well. Although most courts have already implemented online databases, there is still a small handful of courts that have not. These include the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma and the 2d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Southern District of New York Case Management/ Electronic Case Filing System (CM/ECF) release date has been postponed yet again, to late June of this year, and the 2nd Circuit has announced its Web Pacer database will go live on Friday, May 9.
Online case information
Direct access in these courts can be obtained only by using the archaic dial-up method that will soon be extinct. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are courts that have implemented Web Pacer, Racer and CM/ECF. These three online case information systems are very similar, but Racer and CM/ECF offer real-time access to case information, and only the CM/ECF system has the ability to process electronic filings. However, now most courts are working to put into action the CM/ECF system, and discontinue offering all other systems. Two additional courts using the CM/ECF system worth mentioning are the U.S. Court of International Trade and U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
There is a clear distinction between the case management and the electronic case filing systems, two separate but closely related functions. CM is the case management that allows courts to docket internally and manage cases, and the public to retrieve dockets and document images. ECF is the electronic case filing that provides the option for courts to accept electronic filings. So when a court is actively using CM/ECF, it does not necessarily mean that the court is accepting electronic filings at the present time.
While bankruptcy courts are leading the way in CM/ECF implementation, district courts are also gaining speed. A few states have already completely switched to the CM/ECF system, including Maine, Maryland and Nebraska. New Mexico has a similar system in place for its district and bankruptcy courts that is not affiliated with the CM/ECF system.
Accessing the CM/ECF, Racer and Web Pacer systems costs 7 cents per page with a 30-page price cap for document images; however, there are still some courts that can be accessed for free. These courts utilize Racer or their own independently built database systems. These include the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware for documents filed before July 28, 2001; the U.S. District and Bankruptcy courts for the District of Idaho; the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana for civil cases filed before June 1, 2002, and all criminal cases; the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Minnesota; the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina; the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Oklahoma; the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Washington; the 7th Circuit; the U.S. Supreme Court; the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims; and the U.S. Tax Court.
Litigators who need to monitor closely a case's docket and who require immediate updates should note that docket-monitoring services such as CourtLink and CourtExpress have quickly begun to lose their usefulness for this purpose. As more courts offer electronic filing with real-time access using CM/ECF and Racer, these vendors simply cannot monitor dockets effectively since they can only access the docket on a daily basis. It's safe to assume that these vendors will eventually offer docket monitoring more than once a day, but right now it's important to be aware of this delay.
For example, in bankruptcy cases there can be dozens of new docket entries made on any given day. Attorneys will not learn of these new filings promptly unless they access the court's database manually.
Additionally, when a case is electronically filed, attorneys with an ECF account (as opposed to a public access CM/ECF account) have the ability to receive e-mail notifications immediately after a document is filed. This will continue to be the fastest notification method available.
Many states are just beginning to add databases online to access case information. Since there are significantly more cases in state courts than in federal courts, the task is much larger and complex. Some states offer separate databases for individual courts, while others have a centralized method of broad court access. States with broader access include Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. States with many individual court databases worth mentioning include California, Florida and Ohio.
State court case databases and electronic-filing programs are more heavily influenced and designed by commercial vendors, as compared to federal courts. Some of the many vendors include CCI-Maximus, Henschen & Associates Inc., LexisNexis, Manatron Inc., The Sanderson Group, The Software Group and Verilaw Technologies Inc.
If attorneys can't download a document they need from a court database, the following are a few commercial vendors that offer images for downloading:
* Courthouse News Service - offering recent complaints from various federal and state courts in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington.
* Virtual Docket - offering various case documents from the Delaware District, Bankruptcy, Supreme and Chancery courts.
* LegalCaseDocs - offering briefs, complaints, motions and other related documents in many jurisdictions.
* LitWatch - offering complaints, opinions and other documents in various jurisdictions.
While these companies continue to offer many documents for downloading, others have discontinued their online offerings. WDS (formerly Washington Document Service) has discontinued "Hot Docs," Juritas.com appears no longer to be in business, and Courthouse News no longer offers complaints from New York Supreme courts online.
The speed and legislation for implementing online case retrieval has greatly improved, which is reflected in what's available online. A law firm will be at a great disadvantage if it is not aware of the current court case database technology and availability. As practical obscurity is reduced, the value and importance of electronic researchers, filers and law librarians will rival and possibly exceed that of traditional court clerks.
The different courts' integration of technology as it affects litigation and bankruptcy practice is significant and positive. During the next few years, continued growth and improvement will further enable faster, more efficient case-information management, retrieval and filing for law firms, court employees and the general public.
This article is reprinted with permission from the May 5, 2003 issue of the National Law Journal. © 2003 ALM Properties, Inc. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.