Introduction to Docket Research
Author: Sarah Morris
Did you know that access to state court records varies widely based on jurisdiction?
While all dockets are a record of the proceedings of a court case, they vary across jurisdictions in the type of information recorded, the level of detail included, and their availability to the public. Some jurisdictions provide free online docket systems, while others require a subscription to a database, and some are only available to in-person searching.
Names and structure of state court systems vary from state to state, but there are similarities.
- Trial courts are usually where cases start and there are two types – criminal and civil. Some states might call their trial courts district courts, supreme courts, or superior courts. They might even have multiple levels of trial courts.
- Appellate courts are intermediate courts that review decisions of the trial courts at the request of the parties.
- And the high court, typically the state supreme court, hears from the appellate courts. State high courts usually have the final word on important questions of state law.
The State Court Structure Chart provided by the National Center for State Courts can be helpful in determining a particular state’s court structure, as well as providing links to their websites.
Thomson Reuters provides a page where you can learn more about Westlaw’s online court coverage. Dockets are available for all U.S. district courts and for many state courts, but not all! For example, Michigan is made up of 83 counties and only three of those are accessible via Westlaw, with one only including dockets from 2015 to present.
At Subrosa, we also refer to a subscription-based resource to get detailed information about whether online records are available for specific counties, if searches are confined to the clerk, record retention dates, and more. Depending on how small or rural the county, the results might be quite limited.
The 33rd Circuit Court in Charlevoix county, Michigan is a great example. The trial court handles all felonies, civil actions over $25,000, and family matters. Their civil and criminal records are computerized back to 1991, but they keep microfiche back to 1868! There is no online docket and no public access terminal at the court. Only the clerk can perform in person searches and they estimate at least one week turnaround time. This is the type of situation where we would reach out to our network of vendors to support requests for information as part of a background check.
As you might be able to tell, docket searching is a multi-step process that requires initial research, confirmation of coverage, attention to detail, follow up, and a potentially a great deal of time if the information isn’t accessible online.
We have experienced researchers who are happy to help!