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Criminal Justice

Resources and help for topics relating to criminal justice.

How To Read a Docket

Docket Research

What is a docket?

A docket is simply a record of the proceedings of a court case. Dockets vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction in the type of information recorded, the detail of the information, and availability to the public. Some jurisdictions have free online docket systems, while others require a subscription to a database or even visiting the court in person.

How to Read a Docket

While docket formats vary, some basic information should be included on all dockets. Usually, a docket includes a case name, party names, and case or docket number.

How To Read A US Supreme Court Docket

Reading a Docket From the US Supreme Court

This is illustrated in the image below of a U.S. Supreme Court docket. Click on the image to see the web version. 

 

Docket details will often list the date of an event, argument, or document submission, as well as some information about the event. This is illustrated in the image below of a U.S. Supreme Court docket.

 

Describes the event date and the event description of a docket from the US Supreme Court.

 

Finally, dockets often include detailed information about parties and their attorneys. This can be important for determining which lawyers or law firms represent clients in cases. The image below displays a U.S. Supreme Court docket with attorney information.

 

Describes where the attorney contact information is located on a US Supreme Court Docket.

(content transposed from Docket Research Lilian Goldman Law Library at Yale University)

How To Read & Locate Federal Court Dockets

US Federal Courts

Federal Appellate Courts

  • U.S. Supreme Court dockets since 2000 are available on their website and in Specialized Databases.

  • Federal Courts of Appeals dockets are often available on the US Appellate Courts website, but not all will be published. Occasionally dockets or individual documents will be posted on the court website, but this is usually only in cases that are important or of special interest.

  • PACER - Federal case files are maintained electronically and are available through the internet-based Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) service. PACER allows anyone with an account to search and locate appellate, district, and bankruptcy court case and docket information

Federal Trial Courts

Federal District courts are the trial courts for the federal government. Published Federal District Court opinions are reported in the Federal Supplement case reporter. Because a trial involves a lot of motion practice (many motions are filed), a judge may issue many rulings. A single trial case may see multiple published opinions. However, the only way to find all the motions, rulings, and more is to view the docket.

How do I find Federal District Court Dockets?

  • Individual court websites may post dockets or documents of particular interest to the public. Otherwise, dockets and documents must be located in Specialized Databases.

Federal District court cases have a standard numbering scheme that helps locate individual cases. The first digits in a case number identify the year the case was filed. This is followed by case-type code. 'CV' identifies a civil case, 'CR' identifies a criminal case, and so forth; the case number follows this. An example of this is seen below.

The case number is 05-CV-07953. Shows what the numbers and letters mean in a federal court case number. The first two numbers are the year the case was filed. If the case has CV, it means it is a civil case, If the case has CR, it means the case is a criminal case. The last numbers indicate the actual case number of the court.

Note: every Federal district court uses this scheme. So while one court will not re-use a case number, one case number may identify multiple cases (each in a different court). Some district courts add judges initials or other identifying information to this standard number.

(content transposed from Docket Research Lilian Goldman Law Library at Yale University)

State Court Dockets

State Court Dockets

State courts vary widely on trial court access and information. Some states call their trial courts district, supreme, superior, or even multiple levels of trial courts. 

Some states have docket information available for free online. For example, New York State and Washington State have accessible online databases. Other states have proprietary systems and/or require you to locate dockets in Specialized Databases, such as Georgia. This is a free resource however, you must register for an account to access court cases.  

How do I find State Court Dockets?

1. Check to see if your state has a free online database. Search Google for phrases like '[state name] case search.'

2. Depending on the topic of the case, there are several organizations that publish Federal and State court case dockets that are free to download. Some sources to check are:

3. Contact the state law library. They can often tell you the best way to get state court dockets in their state and may even be able to help locate items for you.

4. Contact a reference librarian for help on how to locate state court dockets.

Searching PACER

PACER is the official case location system for the federal government, but searches are somewhat limited (not full text).  This tutorial will show you how to find a particular court's records, including cases by name, date, and docket number.  Included is a demo of the PACER case locator, which allows you to search multiple courts simultaneously, and a demonstration of how to retrieve statistical reports on the activities of a particular court.

  • Most of the material on PACER is available in the docket databases on Bloomberg Law and Westlaw. Those databases should be your first docket research stop.
  • PACER charges $0.10 per page VIEWED. As long as you do not go over $30 in views per month, you will not owe charges incurred. 
  • You must register for your own PACER account here

PACER tutorials from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts
Lasting only a few minutes each, the tutorials are a quick and fun way to learn something new about PACER or to brush up on your existing PACER skills.