Court records in the U.S. are often public available but they are divided up into a myriad of public databases. It is easiest to focus on whether the court hearing the case is federal, state, or county (even though courts are further divided beyond those levels).
Terminology: A Case File refers to a file of every single legal document in the case, so basically everything. A Legal Opinion is a written explanation by the judge or judges that accompanies their ruling (just to be clear, the ruling is identified in this document).
The term Docket refers to different things depending on the jurisdiction, but it generally refers to a sort of schedule of court hearings. The Docket often refers to who is involved in the case, where and when it is happening and why. Much of this information is only recorded before the case occurs but in certain jurisdictions the Docket will entail the ruling and/or events of the case.
The best free resource for court records is Court Listener, a website for researching federal and state court opinions. The site is maintained by the nonprofit the Free Law Project, which exists largely for the stated purpose of enabling the public to access court records.
Judy Records is also a great resource for court records at any level.
PACER is another good resource that sort of straddles the divide between free and paid. PACER does require payment but generally at the end of the year they will dismiss the bill for anyone that spent less than about $15 that year. PACER is the official resource government resource for docket and case files of federal courts.
If you want to use PACER, you should definitely get the RECAP, a free browser extension that automatically searches for free copies of whatever record you are seeking in PACER. Specifically, it archives files from U.S. Federal District and Bankruptcy Courts. RECAP was created by Harvard and Princeton Universities and is maintained by the Free Law Project referenced above.
Dockets for federal cases are available for free here in a less than friendly format in the Federal Judicial Center’s Integrated Database. At the bottom of the screen you choose between Civil, Criminal, Bankruptcy, and Appeals and then choose “interactive mode” or download all of their data.
SIDENOTE: What are all of these kinds of courts and cases?
When you are looking for a specific person in court records you may, depending on the database, first have to choose which kind of case records to search before you can search for your person’s name.
Federal Courts – generally, you can expect a case to be in federal court if A.) it is a legal dispute between two people from two different states, B.) if it is a bankruptcy case, C.) a case of federal law, according to legal expert Marc Newman (https://millerlawpc.com/difference-state-federal-courts/).
State and County Courts – most importantly, you can expect criminal cases here (state and county laws are most likely to be the laws violated in general). But also family law cases, personal injury suits, contract disputes, and traffic violations, also according to Mr. Newman.
Circuit Court – the name is a bit deceptive, circuit courts are generally state and lower courts but they largely focus on civil and criminal cases. If you are looking for a civil or criminal case in a state or county database, you will likely need to choose to specify that you are looking in “circuit court” before you can choose “civil cases” or “criminal cases.”
Civil – is when two people or parties have a dispute. One party files a complain against the other and they go to court. The parties will settle in a private agreement or go to trial, where either a judge or jury (depending on the trial) will decide on a resolution for the two parties.
Criminal – is pretty straight forward. The government brings the case because it believes that someone has broken the law, we have seen various iterations on tv.
Bankruptcy – bankruptcy cases are only in federal courts. The point, according to The Federal Courts’ Official Website (https://www.uscourts.gov/statistics-reports/bankruptcy-courts-and-cases-journalists-guide) , is to consider giving the person or business that is in debt an opportunity to be relieved of all or part of that debt or to repay it in a different manner.
Appeals – the losing party in a case requests that it is reconsidered.
okay, SIDENOTE is over.
Court Listener, noted above, should be your first step for state courts because if it works you can avoid searching for the specific court database.
The National Center for State Courts maintains a list here of state websites for publicly available state courts’ records.
One can find individual county websites for county-level court records at Black Book Online. Just click on “County Public Records” at the bottom of the page, then choose the relevant state from the list that appears and then choose the county.