What is a Court Record?
A U.S. court record is a type of public record that is created almost exclusively by the courts and courthouses of the United State legal system. They are created for both criminal and civil cases, and created by local, county, state and federal judicial entities in the justice system. Court records are created as a way of documenting the goings on of the legal system, as this system serves as the judiciary of disputes, criminal punishment, and arbiter of law in the United States of America.
Court records are available to the public, though can be sealed, expunged, or made unavailable through legal methods like classification. This is usually done when details of the case can pose a continued threat or liability to government agencies, companies, or individuals who were victims of a crime. One example is in cases of juveniles, records often remain unavailable until the offender comes of age. This is done as a means of protection for the offender as they were legally a child during their trial. Other common cases are in sexual assault, or when company secrets are contained in court records.
Court records are largely available online, though some smaller or non-affluent areas will require interested parties to visit the courthouse of record creation or the clerk of the municipal government to obtain or study court records. Information in a court record can vary depending on the municipality, with some providing intricate details of cases, while others provide on case names, case numbers, and the type of court in which the dispute, criminal trial, or sentencing took place. Some are free for observation, while others cost money to reproduce and study.
There are several different types of court record. Some examples include:
Court Minutes - Documents that detail the actions recorded during a session of court. They are there to “fill in the blanks” where dockets and indexes detail more poignant moments.
Civil and Arrest Dockets -Dockets are created when a judge or court decides to hear a case. They largely record the current status of the case, and change many times over the course of a trial.
Criminal Dockets -These maintain information on criminal cases, such as circumstances, times, and ongoing statuses.
Civil Dockets - These detail information civil cases, including ongoing statuses, and dates of note, circumstances, and times.
Equity Dockets - Technically part of civil law, these yield different types of dockets. They refer to injunctions, attempts to force vacancies, breaches of contract, and other such wrongdoings.
Misc Dockets - Refers to court action that is required to settle disputes over voter disqualification, adoptions, divorces, tax foreclosures, insolvency, and more.
Case Files - These typically contain the most usable information from a case, trial, or hearing. They usually include original copies of subpoenas, writs, testimony, publications, and evidence.
Attorney Records - These are documents that detail the actions of attorneys, lawyers, or other legal representatives.
Letters of Attorney - These are letters giving permission for a person to appear in court on behalf of a party which they are to represent in the court proceedings.
Roles of Attorney - These document the name, sponsor, date, and bar admission of the local bar of attorneys.
Orders of the Court - These detail the findings of a the court. They are almost always recorded. Executions are typically kept in separate volumes because of their importance.
Judgement Documentation - Rare today, but in some jurisdictions, the court clerk will be required to make an extensive court minute entry on the subject of the judge’s judgement.
Jury Records and Files - Juries are the parties of peers that decide if a defendant is guilty or not guilty. Their determination is taken into account when the judge renders his final judgement. Their composition and decisions are a matter of record.
Grand Juries - Grand juries are also called indictment juries. They consist of between 1 and 23 members, and are present during the preliminary hearings to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed to a trial.
Petit Juries - These are also called trial juries. They consist of between six and 12 people. They are an impartial group of peers that hear evidence and arguments to determine reasonable doubt, or guilt, for the defendant.
Witness Documentation - Witness lists show the full names of those that took the stand to offer testimony against the accused in a criminal trial.
Glossary - A glossary of legal terms related to court records.
Court minutes are a documentation of the actions recording during a session of court. They can refer to the process of trial and adjudication, the arguments presented by both complainant and defendant, or even the details of witness testimony. Where dockets and indexes end, court minutes pick up. They are a recording of the minute details of court proceedings, and “fill in the blanks” where dockets and indexes cover the broad categories and recordings. Court minutes will cover a variety of topics. For example, in county court, minutes will cover the proceedings of both civil and criminal cases, unless the penalty for the criminal offense was death. They will also detail the names and information for the overseers of the poor, coroners, justices of the peace, jurors, and tax officials. On occasion, the minutes will not be complete, or complete enough, to include the names of all witnesses and jurors, though this is often still the best option for finding such information.
Civil and Arrest Docket
Upon deciding to hear a case, an entry is entered on a court docket while the defendant awaits the trial date. The purpose of a docket is to determine the current status of a pending case. Most cases see multiple changes as their status changes in the court of the case. There are several kinds of dockets. Some examples include:
- Criminal dockets maintain information on criminal cases, their circumstances, times, and ongoing statuses. The docket here finishes when the case does.
- Civil dockets detail information on civil cases, or cases that do not involve a breach of the law that could involve jail time or fines. Civil cases typically involve a legal dispute between two parties who have engaged in a dispute. One parties files a complaint and the other can either submit to legal action or pay the requested fee outright.
- Equity dockets are technically a part of civil law, but often get their own branch in terms of dockets. Equity refers to a set of rulings or remedies that are distinguished from legal ones. They often refer to injunctions, attempts at force vacation of premises, or breach of contract in relation to requested performance (such as contract work or temporary employment.
- Miscellaneous dockets refer to court action required to settle dispute that do not involve monetary requests, damages, breaches of the law. Instead, these legal proceedings handle issues of voter disqualification, adoptions, divorce records, tax foreclosures, insolvency, estate management, and other breaches of contract that do not technically violate the law, so much as act a breach of the peace.
These entries represent the majority of docket entries but do not encompass them. For a more information, visit a local courthouse and request access to the court docket.
Small Claims Court
Small claims are cases involving minor money disputes where the petitioner seeks monetary compensation for personal injury, damage, or loss of property. Generally, dedicated small claims courts are created to handle these cases, but it is common for small claims courts to be subdivisions of other courts.
The trial system in small claims courts is different from regular civil courts. Unlike civil courts, small claims courts in the US encourage self-representation and even provide resources that intending litigants may use to prepare for trial. The rules of court procedure are also less complex, further facilitating self-representation for persons without professional knowledge of the court system.
These are often the most valuable, and sought after, court records available. They contain the most usable information from a case, trial, and dispute of all court records. Information in these documents typically include original copies of subpoenas, writs, testimony, publications, and most importantly: evidence. These details are almost never recorded in the minutes, orders, or docket. These types of court records can vary widely in size. Some contain just a few pages or documents, while others (from larger, controversial, or complex cases) can contain hundreds of pages. Historically, these documents take up so much space that even before digitization and in the internet, they were stored in microfilm. When conducting research on cases of antiquity, interested parties will often have to make use of aging microfilm viewers. Thankfully, most case files now are subject to digitization, and are open to the public on computers or online.
While these records often documents the actions of attorneys, lawyers, or other legal professionals, those that represent the plaintiff or defendant do not always have a legal background. Regardless of their profession, attorney records detail the actions of those that represent those either accusing, or being accused.
There are two types of record for attorneys.
Letters of Attorney are permission for a person (or attorney-in-fact) to appear before a court on behalf of the party they are representing. These letters typically contain the representative’s or attorney’s name, proxy party (defendant or plaintiff being represented), the case they were involved in, and the date at which permission of representation was granted.
Roles of Attorney are kept in separate volumes of attorneys, and represent the local bar of lawyers who are licensed to appear before the court in question. Each “roll” documents the attorney’s name, sponsor, and date or bar admission. They can also include the date of death, disbarment, jurisdiction removal, and more. Additionally, students seeking to be legal professionals must provide information, meaning that the attorney’s address, internship location, school, and official report from the board of law examiners about qualification may also be present. Finally, in some jurisdiction, the attorney’s place of birth, age, and parent’s names are also included.
Orders of the Court
Orders of the court are, put simply, the findings of the court. They are almost always recorded in all jurisdictions for future reference. One particularly important order of the court recording are executions; these orders are often kept in a separate volume due to their importance. The order of the court is also known as an official proclamation, and can define the legal relationships between the parties present during trial. As such, these court orders must be signed by a judge as a means to verify that the document is factual and accurate to the judge or judges’ proclamation.
While rare today, in some jurisdictions, the court clerk is required to make an extensive court minute entry on the subject of the judgement given by the judge. These are usually preceded by an abridgement of the of the case itself. These are typically used as legal sources for lawyers because of their great detail and thorough description of the judges findings.
Jury Records and Files
The jury represent the group of peers that appear in court to offer judgement to the defendant. While the judge has final say on punishment parameters, the jury is the group of people that decide if there is substantial enough evidence to determine if the accused is guilty. If they find the evidence lacking, they are meant to vote for innocence. These people are selected at random from the populace in a process called serving jury duty. In this way, the American people take part in the judgement of accused parties, making for a more fair and just society. Tampering with a jury is strictly forbidden, and can trigger additional accusations.
There are two types of juries in modernity.
Grand Juries, also called indictment juries, consist of between one and 23 members of the populace, and are present during a preliminary hearing court to determine if evidence presented to prove a person’s guilt is justified. They can also rule in the opposite direction.
Petit Juries, or trial juries, consist of between six and 12 people. They are meant to act as an impartial group of peers to hear evidence and arguments to determine if reasonable doubt exists, or if a defendant is guilty of what they are accused.
Jury records are maintained separately from other court records for the purposes of jury duty. Jury duty consists of a list of eligible candidates that is largely based on tax records or voter registration. Because of this, jury records will show the names, addresses, occupations, and ages of those involved in a case in the capacity of a jury. When a juror is dismissed, their dismissal reason is noted in jury records. Jury duty is mandatory unless the juror has a legitimate excuse.
Witness lists show the full names of those that took the stand to offer their testimony against the accused in a criminal trial. These lists may occasionally include further information, such as the age, race, gender, and addresses of witnesses as well. These lists originally formed around the idea of providing information on ancestral connections (family) of the witnesses in case any bias was found. While today they serve mostly a record keeping purpose, they still persist, and are almost always present.
What Are Judgment Records?
U.S. judgment records are court documents containing the court’s decision on a lawsuit, following the examination of case facts or a trial. The clerk of courts maintains this judgment record in the court archives, and the case parties will typically have a copy. Interested members of the public can also obtain copies of judgment records based on state sunshine laws, court administrative rules, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
To begin, the searcher must identify the courthouse where the trial happened. This court is typically located in the county where the plaintiff filed the case or where the incident happened. Upon identifying the courthouse, the requester must visit the clerk’s office during regular business hours to submit a request. The administrative staff will require case information to process the search, such as the case number and litigants’ names. Also, most courts charge search fees and copying fees for this service. Another way to obtain judgment records is to send a mail-in request or search online if the court maintains an online database.
Indeed, the information contained in judgment records depends on the case type. Nevertheless, a typical judgment record contains:
- The litigants’ names.
- Judgment date.
- A description of the contested issues in the lawsuit.
- The court’s final decision based on state laws.
What Are Bankruptcy Records?
Bankruptcy records are court-generated files that provide information on bankruptcy cases filed at a federal court. Except where protected by law, most records are considered public and can therefore be accessed by interested parties. Members of the public can obtain copies of a record by contacting the records custodian. Bankruptcy records provide different types of information, some of which include:
- The type of bankruptcy filed (chapters)
- The status of the case
- Name and address of the debtor
- The case number and filing date
Alongside bankruptcy records, recordings of US liens, contracts, judgments, and writs can be made available to interested and eligible persons on request. However, requestors will be required to provide the information required to facilitate record searches and cover the cost of research and copies (if required).
Court Records Glossary
Acquittal - A verdict rendered by a jury that the defendant is not guilty. Also applies to when a judge find evidence insufficient.
Admissible - A term used to describe evidence that is usable in court.
Affidavit - A written or printed statement made under oath
Amicus Curiae - “Friend of the Court.” Advice formally offered to the court by a person or organization that is interested in the case, but no involved in it.
Appeal - A post-trial request made by the party that has lost. These are usually made on the basis that something was wrong with the ruling, evidence, or another aspect of the case. Appeals can sometimes move to higher courts.
Appellate - an appellate court is responsible for reviewing the judgement of a lower court or trial court.
Arraignment - A process in which a defendant is brought before the judge to be told of the charges levied against them.
Bail - The release of a prisoner prior to their trial. A person accused of a crime may spend the time waiting for their trial in jail or prison, but with bail this person is able to have some modicum of freedom. Bail is achieved by posting a set amount of money that in most cases is returned upon the criminal returning for their trial.
Bankruptcy Court - A unit of a district court that deals exclusively with bankruptcy. Will have a specific judge called a Bankruptcy Judge, which has decision-making power in federal bankruptcy cases.
Brief - A written statement submitted during or before a trial or appellate process. This will explain one side’s legal arguments and facts.
Burden of Proof - The duty of the plaintiff to prove disputed facts. In criminal trials, the government has the burden of proof. In civil cases, it is typically the accuser.
Capital Offense - A crime that is punishable by death.
Case File - A collection of every document that was filed in court during a trial or case.
Case Law - The law as established in previous court rulings. This is also known as precedent or legal precedent
Caseload - The number of cases a given court will tend do in a specific amount of time. Typically reports annually.
Charges Dismissed - Charges are what a suspect or criminal has been formally accused of doing, and when these charges are found to be false or lack sufficient evidence to accuse, they are dismissed. This is in line with the American legal system’s commitment to a prompt and speedy trial.
Charges Filed - Criminal charges are filed against a particular individual shortly after the time of arrest. These charges are then taken to a judge to decide if there is sufficient cause for trial and prosecution.
Criminal Classifications - There are typically three different criminal classifications. In order ot magnitude, these are felonies, misdemeanors, and either infractions or petty crimes. The latter crimes are used to cover minor crimes like traffic violations or ordinance violations. Many states group these lesser crimes and misdemeanors.
Criminal Justice - Criminal justice is the term given to the section of the legal system that deals in criminal law. That is to say, the section that deals with prosecution and defense of alleged criminals.
Criminal Law - The practice and regulation of formally evaluating those accused of criminal offenses for the purposes of dismissing or justifying charges placed upon an alleged criminal.
Criminal Records Search - When a person seeks to research a particular person’s history of criminal history, they can begin a criminal history search to learn more. These checks can reveal the details of a person’s criminal history, and the nature of their crimes.
Damages - Money that is owed to the plaintiff of a civil case in the event the plaintiff wins. Damages can be rendered in both a compensatory or punitive capacity.
De Facto - Something that exists as a matter of fact, but not as a matter of law.
Deptor - A person who has filed for relief under Bankruptcy Code.
Default Judgement - A judgement awarded to a plaintiff. This is intended to award relief to a plaintiff that is sought when a complainant has failed to appear in court or otherwise respond to the plaintiff’s accusations.
Defendant - In a criminal case, the defendant is the person who is accused of the crime. In civil cases, the defendant is the person or organization who is accused by the plaintiff.
Discharge - A release of a debtor from personal liability for certain dischargeable debts. Notable exceptions to dischargeability are taxes and student loans. A discharge releases a debtor from personal liability for certain debts known as dischargeable debts and prevents the creditors owed those debts from taking any action against the debtor or the debtor's property to collect the debts. The discharge also prohibits creditors from communicating with the debtor regarding the debt, including through telephone calls, letters, and personal contact.
Docket - A log containing the complete history of each case in the form of brief chronological entries summarize the court proceedings.
Equitable - This term relates strongly to civil suits founded in equity that than ones founded in law. Originally, a separate court could order someone to either do, or stop doing, something. In America, federal courts have the power to be both legal and equity courts. Equity court cases do not have a jury.
Evidence - Information that is presented in a court of law in an effort to show that a defendant is guilty of committing a crime.
File - To place a piece of paper or information in the official custody of the clerk of the court with the purpose of entering the information into record.
Grand Jury - A grand jury consists of between 16 and 23 citizens to who listen to evidence - presented by the prosecution - of criminal allegations. They decide if there is probable cause to believe the individual in question committed an offense.
Habeas Corpus - Meaning “you have the body.” This is a writ forcing law enforcement authorities to bring a held prisoner before the court and to justify their continued detainment of the individual. This is commonly used by prisoners in state prison who feel that their state prosecutions violated federally protected rights.
Hearsay - Evidence that is presented by a witness that did not see or hear the incident in question, but instead relayed information from someone else who DID hear or see the incident. Hearsay is generally not admissible in court.
Impeachment - The process of calling someone’s testimony into question or doubt. An example would be if an attorney can prove that certain parts of a person’s testimony are fabricated, then the witness is considered impeached.
Indictment - Refers to the formal charge, which is usually issued by a grand jury, state that there is enough evidence from the defendant to commit to a trial.
Injunction - A court order that prevents parties from taking certain actions. Typically preceded by a preliminary injunction so a judge can determine whether a permanent injunction is justified.
Judge - An official in the judicial branch of the American legal system with the authority to decide lawsuits brought to court or trial.
Judgement - The official decision of a court that is resolving a dispute between two parties in a lawsuit.
Jurisdiction - The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a certain type of case. It also refers to the venue or geographic area over which the court has the ability to decide cases.
Lawsuit - A legal action started by a plaintiff against a defendant based on a complaint that the defendant failed to perform a legal duty which resulted in harm to the plaintiff.
Lien - A charge on specific property that is designed to secure payment of a debt or performance of an obligation. A debtor may still be responsible for a lien after a discharge.
Liquidation - The sale of a debtor's property with the proceeds to be used for the benefit of creditors.
Litigation - A case, controversy, or lawsuit. Participants (plaintiffs and defendants) in lawsuits are called litigants.
Nolo Contendere - No contest. A plea of nolo contendere has the same effect as a plea of guilty, as far as the criminal sentence is concerned, but may not be considered as an admission of guilt for any other purpose.
Parole - The release of a prison inmate – granted by the U.S. Parole Commission – after the inmate has completed part of his or her sentence in a federal prison. When the parolee is released to the community, he or she is placed under the supervision of a U.S. probation officer.
Plaintiff - A person or business that files a formal complaint with the court.
Plea - The defendant’s in a criminal case makes a statement pleading either “guilty” or “not guilty.”
Precedent - A court decision in an earlier case with facts and legal issues similar to a dispute currently before a court. Judges will generally "follow precedent" - meaning that they use the principles established in earlier cases to decide new cases that have similar facts and raise similar legal issues. A judge will disregard precedent if a party can show that the earlier case was wrongly decided, or that it differed in some significant way from the current case.
Probation - Sentencing option in the federal courts. With probation, instead of sending an individual to prison, the court releases the person to the community and orders him or her to complete a period of supervision monitored by a U.S. probation officer and to abide by certain conditions.
Probation Officer - Officers of the probation office of a court. Probation officer duties include conducting presentence investigations, preparing presentence reports on convicted defendants, and supervising released defendants.
Prosecute - To charge someone with a crime. A prosecutor tries a criminal case on behalf of the government.
Record - A written account of the proceedings in a case, including all pleadings, evidence, and exhibits submitted in the course of the case.
Sentence - The punishment ordered by a court for a defendant convicted of a crime.
Subpoena - A command, issued under a court's authority, to a witness to appear and give testimony.
Testimony - Evidence presented orally by witnesses during trials or before grand juries.
Tort - A civil, not criminal, wrong. A negligent or intentional injury against a person or property, with the exception of breach of contract.
Verdict - The decision of a trial jury or a judge that determines the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant, or that determines the final outcome of a civil case.
Warrant - Court authorization, most often for law enforcement officers, to conduct a search or make an arrest.
Writ - A written court order directing a person to take, or refrain from taking, a certain act.