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How to Look Up Federal Court Cases | ECFX

February 21, 2024 ECFX

How to Look Up Federal Court Cases

How to Look Up Federal Court Cases: A Step-by-Step Guide


Why Look Up Federal Court Cases

In today's digital age, the internet has revolutionized the way legal professionals and individuals access information. When it comes to federal court cases, searching for them online has become increasingly essential. The availability of federal court case records online offers a multitude of benefits, making it a valuable resource for legal professionals and individuals alike.

One of the main reasons why legal professionals and individuals may need to search for federal court cases online is the convenience it provides. Instead of having to physically visit a courthouse or wait for documents to be mailed, online access allows instant retrieval of case records from the comfort of one's own office or home. This is especially advantageous for lawyers and paralegals who may need quick access to relevant cases to support their legal arguments or research.

Furthermore, searching for federal court cases online offers a vast amount of information. These records often contain detailed information about the parties involved, case documents, court orders, decisions, and judgments. This wealth of information can be invaluable for legal professionals in preparing their cases, conducting legal research, or staying updated on precedent-setting decisions. Individuals may also benefit from this information when conducting background checks or researching legal matters that affect them personally.

However, it is worth noting that while federal court case records are available online, there may be certain costs associated with accessing them. This is due to the fact that federal courts charge fees for accessing and retrieving these records. These charges help cover the costs of maintaining the online database, ensuring its accuracy and reliability. While some may argue that these fees can be an inconvenience, they are necessary to sustain the online platform and provide continued access to valuable information.


Online Resources for Federal Court Cases

PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records):

    • PACER is the official online portal for accessing U.S. federal court records. It provides access to case and docket information from federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts.
    • Users are required to register for a PACER account, and there may be associated fees for accessing certain documents and services. However, basic case information is often available for free.
    • To access PACER, visit the official website: PACER

    Federal Court Websites:

    • Each federal court has its own official website where users can find information on cases, court rules, local rules, and other relevant details.
    • The websites of federal courts often provide free access to basic case information, opinions, and some case-related documents.
    • To find information on a specific federal court case, you can visit the official website of the relevant court. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court's official website is Supreme Court of the United States, and you can find specific district court websites based on the jurisdiction.

Alternative Platforms or Databases*:

    • There are some alternative platforms and databases that aggregate federal court case information or provide additional features.
    • Legal research platforms like Westlaw, LexisNexis, and Bloomberg Law offer comprehensive access to federal court cases, statutes, regulations, and legal research materials. However, these platforms typically require a subscription or institutional access.
    • Public legal databases such as Justia and FindLaw offer free access to a wide range of legal resources, including federal court case information.

*It is important to note that while alternative platforms may offer convenience and additional features, PACER remains the primary official source for federal court electronic records. Additionally, the availability of case information on federal court websites can vary, so it's recommended to check the specific court's website for the most accurate and up-to-date information.


A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Federal Court Cases

Create a PACER Account

  1. Register for an Account

    • Visit the PACER website and register for an account.
    • Choose the appropriate account type:
      • Case Search Only
      • Attorney Filers for CM/ECF
      • Non-attorney Filers for CM/ECF
      • Group Billing

  2. Cost for Accessing PACER

    • Access to federal court records via the PACER service incurs fees based on the amount and type of information accessed in a calendar quarter. The costs include: 1
      • $0.10 per page for documents, search results, reports, and transcripts.
      • $2.40 per audio file.
    • Users are billed on a quarterly basis if they accrue more than $30 in fees in the previous quarter. If the fees are $30 or less, they are waived for that quarter. 

  3. Free Options

    • PACER is free in certain scenarios, including: 1
      • Receiving a Notice of Electronic or Notice of Docket Activity from a court.
      • Viewing case information at any federal courthouse.
      • Being granted a fee exemption as an individual or group.
      • Accessing court opinions, which are always free.

  4. Steps for Limiting Fees

    • To limit fees, users can:
      • Search by case number instead of party name.
      • Use docket report filters to limit the amount of information listed.
      • Search by a specific court instead of using the PACER Case Locator.


Navigating Federal Court Websites

  1. Homepage Navigation

    • Upon visiting a federal court's website, typically, you will find:
      • Tabs or menus that direct you to key areas such as case information, forms, local rules, and court calendars.
      • Links to important sections such as "About the Court," "Case Information," "Forms," and "Opinions."
  2. Case Information Search

    • Look for a prominent "Case Information" or "Case Search" section on the homepage.
    • Use the search functionality to look up cases by party name, case number, or filing date. The interface should be intuitive, allowing users to input search criteria easily.

  3. Document Retrieval

    • Federal court websites often provide access to court documents. Look for sections related to document retrieval or access to court records.
    • The document retrieval system should offer easy navigation, filtering options, and a simple process for accessing and downloading documents.

  4. Local Rules and Forms

    • Navigate to the sections related to local rules and forms. These sections should be well-organized and easily accessible from the homepage.
    • Look for clear categories for different types of forms and local rules, making it simple to locate the required documents or rules.

  5. Court Calendars and Opinions

    • Court calendars and opinions are usually important resources for users. Look for dedicated sections or links to access court calendars and opinions directly from the homepage.
    • The interface should provide easy browsing of court calendars and opinions, with search and filter options for efficient retrieval of specific information.

  6. Help and Support

    • Federal court websites often provide help and support sections for users. Look for FAQs, guides, or contact information for assistance with navigating the website or accessing information.

  7. Accessibility Features

    • Many federal court websites prioritize accessibility. Look for features such as adjustable text size, compatibility with screen readers, and other accessibility options to accommodate diverse users.

Tips for Refining Searches for Specific Case Information

Refining searches for specific case information on federal court websites can be enhanced by utilizing various search techniques and tools.

  1. Boolean Operators

    • Use Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) to combine or exclude keywords for more precise results. For example:
      • Using "AND" to narrow the search, such as "fraud AND securities."
      • Using "OR" to broaden the search, such as "patent OR trademark."
      • Using "NOT" to exclude specific terms, such as "copyright NOT infringement."

  2. Case Numbers

    • If you have a specific case number, enter it directly into the search field. This method provides the most direct and precise results, leading you straight to the desired case information.

  3. Party Names

    • When searching by party names, consider using quotation marks around the full or partial name for an exact match. This can be especially useful for names with multiple parts (e.g., "Smith & Johnson" or "Johnson Family Enterprises").

  4. Relevant Keywords

    • Use relevant keywords related to the specific case information you are seeking. Think about terms that are likely to appear in the documents or descriptions related to your query. For instance, if you are looking for information on a contract dispute, relevant keywords might include "contract," "breach," "agreement," and the names of involved parties.

  5. Filters and Advanced Search Options

    • Explore any available filters and advanced search options provided by the court's website. These features can help refine searches by date range, document type, court division, or other relevant criteria, allowing for more targeted results.

  6. Understanding Search Syntax

    • Familiarize yourself with the search syntax used by the specific court's website. Some websites may have specific syntax requirements for advanced searches or using wildcard characters to expand search results.

  7. Reviewing Search Results

    • After conducting a search, carefully review the search results page. Look for options to sort results by relevance, date, or other criteria to identify the most pertinent information quickly.

Understanding Court Case Databases

In the realm of legal proceedings, the evolution of technology has significantly transformed the way court cases are managed and information is accessed. One pivotal system at the forefront of this technological shift is Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF). This electronic filing and case management system have become integral to the U.S. federal court system, revolutionizing the traditional approach to handling legal documents and streamlining the dissemination of case-related information.

For more information on CM/ECF, see our recent post.


Creating Case Alerts for Real-Time Updates

  1. PACER RSS Feeds

    • PACER provides automatic case notification and alerts through Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds. Users can subscribe to a court’s RSS feed to receive free automatic notifications of case activity, summarized text, and links to documents and docket reports. 

  2. Bankruptcy Noticing Center (BNC) Email Notices

    • To receive bankruptcy notices electronically from the Bankruptcy Noticing Center (BNC) or consolidate U.S. Postal Service notices to one address, users can register at the BNC. These notices are sent on the same day they are produced at the court and can be accessed 24/7. 

  3. CourtAlert Case Management System

    • The CourtAlert Case Management System offers tools to notify attorneys and case teams about deadlines and case information. It automatically captures court notices and provides real-time docket alerts for federal PACER courts, state courts, and more. 

  4. Docket Alarm

    • Docket Alarm provides real-time docket alerts, full-text docket search, and advanced litigation analytics. Users can sign up to receive real-time updates on newly filed suits and new developments on their cases. 

  5. Creating Case Alerts

    • When using these platforms or tools, the process to set up case alerts generally involves:
      • Registering or creating an account on the respective platform.
      • Navigating to the alert or notification settings.
      • Selecting the specific cases or types of updates for which alerts are desired.
      • Choosing the preferred delivery method for alerts (e.g., email notifications, RSS feeds, or in-app notifications).
      • Customizing alert settings, such as frequency and scope of updates.

  6. Benefits of Case Alerts

    • Real-time case alerts provide users with timely information about case developments, new filings, and court notices, enabling them to stay informed and take necessary actions promptly.


Why Do Federal Courts Charge for Online Case Lookup?

Federal courts charge for online case lookup through PACER to cover the operational costs, technological infrastructure, security measures, user support, and overall maintenance of the electronic case management system. These fees contribute to ensuring the reliability, security, and accessibility of court records in the digital age. While basic case information may be available for free, charges typically apply for more detailed records, documents, and comprehensive access to case-related information. The fees are designed to support the ongoing development and maintenance of the electronic system, rather than generate a profit.


Is There a Free Way to Look Up Federal Court Cases?

Yes, there are free ways to look up federal court cases. The PACER Case Locator offers free access to basic case information, and many federal court websites also provide no-cost access to essential details. Additionally, public legal databases like Justia and FindLaw offer free access to federal court case information, including party names and docket entries. While these methods provide basic information at no cost, accessing certain documents on PACER may involve fees.

Another option to consider is ECFX Notice. This innovative solution automatically saves all relevant documents linked to a notice directly into your firm's Document Management System (DMS) using a standardized naming convention. This not only streamlines the process, but also eliminates the need for case team members to revisit PACER and pay for additional downloads. With ECFX Notice, you can save time and resources while ensuring easy access to all necessary case documents.


Can I Access Federal Court Cases Anonymously?

Achieving complete anonymity when accessing federal court cases is challenging due to authentication requirements and the public nature of court records. While some sensitive information may be restricted, basic case details are generally publicly accessible. Courts enforce user authentication, secure data transmission, and restrict access to sealed or restricted cases to protect privacy. Users should review court privacy policies for specifics and be aware that court records are considered public, with limited options for complete anonymity.


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