US Court Records
U.S. Court Records
A U.S. court record is an official civil or criminal court case record created by a local, county, state or federal judicial entity that is related to the court proceedings for a particular court case. Court records are usually available to the public, though the content can vary widely according to federal and/or state laws. Some court cases are not publically available and are protected against access. Many courts provide access to their records electronically via the Internet; however, the means of access is inconsistent and varies according to each state’s particular laws. Some state courts may not provide online access while some maintain only basic information about a particular court case such as the case name, case number and type of court. If limited online access is available, request a physical copy of the records from that specific court by visiting or contacting the court or the County Clerk’s office.
The U.S. Court System
The U.S. judicial (court) system was created under Article III of the U.S. Constitution to administer justice fairly and impartially, within the jurisdiction established by the U.S. Constitution and Congress. The U.S. court system is made up of a hierarchy of courts at the federal and state level.
The federal court system consists of the U.S. Supreme Court followed by the appellate courts (appeals courts) and trial courts. The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the U.S., which authorizes Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. Federal courts deal with cases involving the constitutionality of a law, cases involving laws and treaties of the U.S., cases involving ambassadors and public ministers, disputes between two or more states, admiralty law, bankruptcy and habeas corpus issues. The federal appellate and trial courts are divided into geographic jurisdictions, currently including 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals that sit below the Supreme Court.
The federal appellate level jurisdictions include 12 regional districts that each has its own court of appeals called “circuits.” Federal courts also exist that have jurisdiction over a specific subject matter, such as bankruptcy courts and international trade courts. The appellate courts are used to determine whether the law was applied correctly in a trial court and consist of three judges and no jury. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in special cases, including patent laws and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Law and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The 94 district or trial courts are called U.S. District Courts resolve disputes by determining facts and applying legal principles. Trial courts include a district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges can assist district judges with preparing cases for trial or conducting misdemeanor trial cases. One district court is located in each state and the District of Columbia, each including a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of its district court. The four territories of the U.S., Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam and the Nothern Mariana Islands have U.S. district courts that hear federal cases, including bankruptcy cases.
Congress also created several Article I (legislative courts) that do not have full judicial power but instead decide on questions of constitutional law, questions of federal law and claims at the core of habeas corpus issues. These Article I Courts are the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and the U.S Tax Court.
State courts are arranged similarly to the federal court system, with the state supreme court followed by appellate courts and trial courts. The U.S. Constitution and laws of each state establish the state courts. The state supreme court is the highest state court. Some states have intermediate courts of appeals, and then below that is the state trial courts (often referred to as circuit or district courts). State court systems also usually have courts that handle specific legal issues, such as probate court for wills and estates, juvenile court, family court, among others.
State courts usually handle cases involving most criminal cases, probate, contracts, tort cases (personal injuries), family law (marriages, divorces, adoptions), etc. State courts also arbitrate the state’s laws and constitutions, and interpretations of federal U.S. Constitutional law may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
Freedom of Information Act
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552, is a federal freedom of information law that enables disclosure of information and documents controlled by the U.S. government. FOIA was extracted from its original home in Section 3 of the federal Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The APA was enacted in 1946 and gave U.S. government agencies broad discretion for public access to its records. Congress amended this section in 1966, because it felt the APA was preventing, more than enabling, public access. The FOIA amendment requires every government agency, “upon any request for records which … reasonably describes such records” to make records “promptly available to any person.”
Along with the federal government’s FOIA, each state has passed its own FOIA law, which may be similar but not identical. Exceptions to public access granted by the federal and state FOIA include U.S. court records that are usually not open to the public without a court order or a special provision of the law. These exceptions usually include sealed or expunged criminal and civil court cases, adoption court cases, guardianship court cases, juvenile delinquency court cases, marriage license information, mental health evaluations, income tax records and financial records regarding child/spousal support.
Civil Court Cases
A civil court case involves the litigation of one party against another usually in hopes of acquiring compensation for the damages caused or for a legal remedy (includes small claims court cases), whereas a criminal court case occurs when the courts litigate a defendant for crimes committed against the state. The judgment rendered in a civil court usually entails court orders that award compensation or require some type of legally binding remedy that everyone involved in the case must adhere to. Sometimes the state can serve as a private party in a civil case.
In a civil trial, a judge or jury decides whether the defendant should be held legally responsible for the damages alleged by the plaintiff. During trial, the plaintiff argues their case, while the defendant uses this opportunity to refute the claims and offer evidence. The judge or jury then decides, and if the defendant is found liable the judge or jury then decides the amount of money the defendant must pay or institutes some other legal remedy. However, civil cases may award compensation and/or legal remedy to one or both of the parties; for example, in a child custody case, one parent may be awarded custody of the child while the other parent may be made to pay alimony or child support.
Civil court cases are most often resolved before trial, and in some cases even before a lawsuit is even filed via a settlement reached among the parties, alternative dispute resolution processes like arbitration and mediation or through case dismissal. A civil trial usually consists of these six phases:
- Jury selection
- Opening statements
- Witness testimony and cross-examination
- Closing arguments
- Jury instruction
- Jury deliberation and verdict
If the civil court case does make it to court and is tried before a jury, most states require that a jury verdict must be unanimous; however, some states may allow for verdicts based on a majority. If the jury fails to reach a verdict, a hung jury occurs; then, the judge may declare a mistrial, and the case is dismissed or may start all over again.
Class Action Court Cases
A class action lawsuit entails a group of people with the same or similar injuries caused by the same product or action of an entity, where all the people sue the defendant as a group. These class action lawsuits can also be called mass tort litigation and multi-district litigation. People seek class action lawsuits when the injuries or damages were caused by defective products, consumer fraud, corporate misconduct, securities fraud and employment practices. The class action lawsuit is used to consolidate the attorneys, defendant, evidence, witnesses and most other aspects of the case. If the number of people affected is high, it becomes impractical or even impossible to file individual lawsuits, so instead the group files together with what’s called a representative plaintiff, named plaintiff or lead plaintiff.
Some examples of class action lawsuits may include groups of employees who were discriminated against, patients who were adversely affected by a medical facility or drug, neighborhood residents whose property or people were injured by a toxic spill, consumers who purchased a defective product that caused injuries, or corporate investors who suffered fraud with stocks and other securities purchases.
Small Claims Court Cases
The jurisdiction of small claims courts includes private disputes that do not involve large sums of money and often enable individuals to represent themselves without a lawyer. The routine collection of small debts, evictions and other disputes between landlords and tenants are common cases in small claims court. A small claims court generally has a maximum monetary limit it can award, often between $3,000 and $10,000, but differs according to state. Trial by jury is seldom or never conducted in small claims courts; it is typically excluded by the statue establishing the court.
Common small claims court cases may involve a person’s failure to repay a loan, repairs of an automobile or appliance, return of an apartment rental security deposit, unmet service contract terms (e.g., home remodeling). Some states also include evictions or the request for return of an item or property, which is called restitution. You cannot file for divorce, bankruptcy, guardianship, name change or request for emergency relief such as an injunction to stop someone from doing something illegal. Some states do not allow cases that involve libel, slander or false arrest. Small claims cases also cannot involve any filing against the federal government, but federal tax courts do provide small claims procedures.
Bankruptcies are hearings that are filed in federal bankruptcy courts enabling a person or entity to avoid paying off their debt or to re-structure their debt so it is more manageable for them to pay off. Bankruptcy court cases are generally made public and may be available online, except in certain circumstances such as when the case is provided as evidence in a criminal trial. When filing for access to a bankruptcy court case, a disclaimer warning is often encountered that is intended to dissuade people from accessing bankruptcy court records for negligent or illegal purposes. A person’s credit report will also provide information about bankruptcy case information as well; a bankruptcy court case resides on a person’s credit report for 7-10 years.
A person, spouses together or a corporation or other entity can file a bankruptcy case by first filing a petition with the bankruptcy court. All cases are handled in federal bankruptcy courts as outlined in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Seeking a qualified lawyer to assist in filing a bankruptcy case is strongly suggested because of the long-term financial consequences involved. The fees for filing a bankruptcy case with a lawyer are usually minimal since attorneys understand that the financial situation of the client is already severely compromised. However, an individual can file a bankruptcy on their own, which is called filing pro se. The forms required to file bankruptcy include the 100 series for individuals, married couples or sole proprietors and the 200 series for a non-individual such as a corporation, partnership or limited liability company.
Different types of bankruptcy are termed according to the chapter they refer to in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code and include the following:
- Individual persons file under Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy, and the difference includes whether the person is asking to discard the debt entirely or to re-structure the debt to make it manageable to pay off more easily.
- Municipalities, such as cities, towns, villages, tax districts, municipal utilities and school districts file under Chapter 9 to reorganize their debts.
- Businesses file under Chapter 7 to liquidate or under Chapter 11 to reorganize.
- Family farmers or fisherman file under Chapter 12.
- Parties involving more than one country are filed under Chapter 15.