Extras - The PACER U.S. Party/Case Index: What it does and doesn't (quite) do

Roger Vicarius Skalbeck is currently the Library Systems Specialist at the Washington, DC firm of Williams and Connolly. Roger worked previously in Minneapolis as a patent and trademark researcher, and he has also worked at general practice firms in Minneapolis and Chicago. Current activities include attempts to come up with creative solutions to technology-based legal research problems, from a librarian’s point of view.

(Archived March 16, 1998)


In late 1997, the United States Courts system introduced a fairly revolutionary new index service for researching federal court cases. It is not a technological revolution, and it is not yet on the Internet, but the new index allows for some types of research that had previously been largely cost- and time-prohibitive. In a nutshell, this new service, which covers a majority of federal district and bankruptcy courts, allows for:

  • Multi-jurisdictional searching for federal cases involving individuals or businesses
  • Court docket searching by cause of action in single and multiple jurisdictions

This service is an extension of the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) system, which has been available for various federal courts for a number of years. Previously, to check for litigation or filings at more than one court, users would have to log in to courts individually to see if there was any information of interest at that court. There is a software program called CourtLink which has automated much of this process, but further discussion of this follows in a bit.

Use of the PACER U.S. Party/Case Index (hereafter simply "Party/Case Index") is fairly straightforward, and for people already familiar with searching PACER courts directly, there should be a short learning curve associated with using it. The specifics of how to search the site are available by reading the user manual, which can be downloaded from either the Party/Case Index service, or by accessing the free PACER Service Center.1

In general, you first select whether you want to search for civil, criminal or bankruptcy cases, and then you run a search for either a party name or a cause of action ("nature of suit"). With civil cases, the results that come back will give you: the party name you had searched, the docket number, the name of the district court where the case was filed, the date it was entered, the nature of suit, and the date of disposition of a case. In running your search, you can also select whether or not you want the case title along with the search results that you obtain. Bankruptcy and criminal search results are rather similar to those for civil cases.

 

Following are three examples from civil, criminal and bankruptcy searches2

Civil Name Search:

Name  	                      Court   Case No.    Filed    NOS  Closed
------------------------------------------------------------------------------
MALADA, MICHAEL                 MN    3:96cv00328 04/09/96 152 07/12/96
MALADAN CORPORATION             SD    5:96cv05096 11/08/96 365 03/28/97
MAMBALADA, MARIA                WAW   2:96cv00851 06/03/96 442 04/03/97
MANDERSON, MILADA F             AZ    2:93cv00950 05/19/93 893 09/19/96

Criminal Name Search (with Case Title):

Name  		                           Court  Case No.    Filed       
Case Title  		                                                            
------------------------------------------------------------------------------
GALAMO, GARTURO                             NYS   1:82cr00482 03/04/83
USA v. Doe                                   

GALAMO, ISARTO                              NYS   1:92cr00542 06/25/92
USA v. Galamo                                 

GALAMO, ISATARO                             NYS   1:92m 00272 02/28/92
USA v. Bermuda Triangle                               

Bankruptcy Name Search:

Name                                     Court    Case No. Filed   Chapter
------------------------------------------------------------------------------
ALDAMOVAR CAFE                             NYE    93-13472 04/26/93 7   ARCHIVE
ALDAMOVAR CAFE                             MA     97-16812 07/16/97 11
ALDAMOVAR CAPITAL FUNDING OF ARIZONA,      NYS    95-01452 11/16/95 AP
ALDAMOVAR CAPITAL                          NYE    94-85652 10/07/94 11   ARCHIVE

 

Based on these results, you would then decide whether or not to go further with research. To interpret the nature of suit codes, PACER provides a short index of specific code descriptions based on larger topical groupings (contract, real property, labor, etc.). In order to get the docket sheet for a case of interest, you have to log in to that court’s PACER docket system (though it is a fairly quick process as you will have the exact docket number for the case).

Suggested research options:

I would suggest using the Case/Party Index as a first (though not final) stop for these types of research questions:

  • To check to see if a person or company is currently involved in federal litigation or bankruptcy proceedings
  • To check to see generally who has been involved in a certain type of litigation in a given jurisdiction (e.g. patent cases in the 8th district or RICO cases in California)
  • To get a quick overview of the types of actions in which a company or person has been involved

 

Brief contrasting of the CourtLink and PACER Party/Case Index systems3

As stated above, in some respects, the Party/Case Index does not provide an entirely new service. However, it is done in a new manner, and comes directly from the courts. As many LLRX readers (and law librarians in general) already know, multi-jurisdictional searching has been possible for a while by using specialized software called CourtLink from the Data West Corporation. Indeed, CourtLink will likely become even more of a household word in the near future, as their service has been licensed by Westlaw, and is scheduled to become available to general Westlaw subscribers around the end of March.4

Per-minute charges are higher with the CourtLink service than they are with any of the PACER services, but CourtLink allows you to prepare your queries "off-line", and then submit them in batches for searching. In contrast, billing on any PACER system begins the second that you enter a client/matter number.

When used directly, the CourtLink software adds additional administrative and organizational features such as:

  • storing recently-used client numbers and party/case names
  • access to docket sheets without having to log in to a separate service
  • "enhanced" docket sheets that organize elements of the docket with on-screen "tabs" of information

In terms of the enhanced docket sheets, if users are familiar with looking through docket sheets, some people prefer to simply print or download the whole docket, so that they can study it later. This is something that can be done fairly easily and quickly with any of the PACER court services.

 

Things to look out for and things that could be improved with the Party/Case Index

  • Information for the Party/Case Index is downloaded from federal court PACER systems each evening and incorporated into the master index. For this reason, data on newly filed cases is generally at least one day old. An option in the Party/Case Index will allow you to check to see how current the information is for all available courts.5
  • Not all federal courts are covered by the Party/Case Index. If in doubt, obtain the most current list of excluded courts directly from the service.
  • For nature of suit searches, you cannot combine a suit search with that for a company or individual. Currently this is also not possible with CourtLink. For instance, if you want to see if a specific company is involved in a patent litigation, you first need to find and view/download all cases for that company. The review of the nature of suits for this company is a second step.
  • When downloading information from the Party/Case Index, file names are automatically assigned by the PACER system, unlike the option you have to override this with PACER courts that permit direct downloading of dockets. Pay attention to the file names if you download them.
  • The information that you get back from Party/Case Index is only information about the cases (essentially meta-information). If you want to check out the docket sheet for one or more cases of interest, you need to log in to the respective courts directly.
  • As with PACER court searching, there are still going to be problems with authority control of search terms. In non-librarian parlance, this means that party names are not always going to be entered in a uniform fashion (e.g. cases involving IBM could be listed as International Business Machines, I.B.M., International Business Machines Corp., etc.) Both CourtLink and the Party/Case Index also allow for key-word searching as well as term truncation (where a search pulls up everything that matches at least the beginning letter string of the name(s) entered), but users of either service should focus on choosing words that are as specific and/or unique as possible.

Yet to come:

As of early February, 1998, the main option from within the Case/Index that has yet to be made available is the Appellate Information Menu. For this reason, it is not currently possible to search for any appellate-level cases or actions by using the Party/Case Index. No specific information is provided as to when this will be available.

 

Conclusion:

Understanding that the above caveats and conditions could be considered a bit daunting, I think it best to end with two brief illustrations of how the Party/Case index has saved me a lot of time and quickly turned up some interesting information:

  • In searching for cases involving a person in a state with more than one district court, I wanted to check to see if there was anything of interest in any of the district courts for that state. As the name was fairly uncommon, I ran a search for all available courts (nationwide), which turned up cases in two districts in her home state as well as one from a court on the opposite coast, where I had not thought to look.
  • I needed to find information on a very specific personal injury case involving a company that was named in dozens of ERISA and employment-related cases in a given district court. Though I couldn’t search both criteria at once, I downloaded a list of all of the cases for this company, and out "jumped" the tort case from amongst all of the employment-related filings.

In closing, technology is obviously going to bring about significant changes in the ways in which access to judicial and court information is provided. One place that this is predicted to appear fairly soon is in the way that filings are made (and made available), and the way in which judicial opinions from all levels are made accessible. In the near future though, as James Johnston points out in his brief article "Why Aren’t More Decisions Online?"6, Federal District Court opinions are not likely to start appearing on the Internet for free. Likewise, court docket information is not likely to quickly begin to appear in this manner in a uniform fashion. Though the Party/Case Index does not provide for all research needs involved in dealing with federal courts, the services it provides are done quickly and efficiently. Also, as the information available from the Party/Case Index provides uniform, structured information, it also opens up the opportunity for third party companies to easily capture this data and enhance it for other, "value-added" services. For the present, I am quite happy and satisfied that the courts have provided what I consider a useful resource for quickly researching multiple jurisdictions for basic court information. The interface is simple and basic (indeed "no frills"), it is only 60¢ a minute, and it is a service that I can use directly without having to have outside services or other intermediaries assist in obtaining basic-level information.

 

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Footnotes

  1. The phone number for the PACER service center is: 800-676-6856. You can also send questions via email to pacer@aottsd.uscourts.gov. The dial-up phone number for the general PACER bulletin board is: 800-214-0847. Most importantly, the PACER U.S. Party/Case Index dial-up number is: 800-974-8896. To use any of the dial-up services, you need a valid PACER account. To get in, you need to have a communications software that supports VT100 terminal emulation. Settings for the PACER U.S. Party/Case Index and the PACER Service Center are N/8/1.  <back to text>
  2. With these and all examples in this overview, data has been changed to "protect the innocent" as they say. The nature of what is presented is factual, but the specifics have been changed.  <back to text>
  3. This article is not intended to be a direct comparison of CourtLink and the Party/Case Index, as they function differently. One major difference is in coverage: CourtLink includes more than just federal courts.  <back to text>
  4. LLRX readers may have seen mention of the press release from Westgroup which was announced here in January, and is available at: http://www.westgroup.com/about/presrlse/wg/datawest.htm.   <back to text>
  5. When the service debuted in early November, 1997, most courts were reported to be anywhere from 1 day to one week behind, with a few courts that were between 3 months to more than a year behind. Currently, the vast majority of courts are reported to be one or two days off, with a handful of them lagging slightly behind this. -- In general, PACER coverage begins with a certain date (usually around 1990 or so), but this coverage is retroactive for active cases as of the date that PACER was brought online for the respective court. Due to some computational issues, coverage dates are erroneously listed for some courts to go back as far as 1903, 1967, 1980, and 1977. To my knowledge, PACER administration is aware of this shortcoming, and they are working on fixing this problem.  <back to text>
  6. Johnston, James H. "Why Aren’t More Decisions Online?"   Legal Times Tech Special Report. S42, Week of January 26, 1998.  <back to text>