How are Court Records Collected and where are they Stored?
The Strategic Plan of Federal Judiciary enlists Accountability as a core value of the federal judiciary. State Judiciaries too mandate accountability along with transparency as the bedrock for pronouncing justice. After all, every citizen has a right to know the precedence of laws and decrees, causes and consequences of judicial proceedings, specific as well as incidental case files and entire judgments that justify their articulation.
Hence, Court records are a part of public records available for access to citizens under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 1967 as well as similar State Laws. The intention is to empower citizens to validate the possibility of incomplete or wrong submissions and disclosures pertaining to court records by anyone, whether intentional or unintentional, recover evidence of direct and incidental legal documents and also ensure accountability of the judiciary by securing such documents that may reflect fraudulent, wasteful and abusive practices consequent to unawareness of availability of the said records.
Presently, the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) is responsible for preparing and annually revising the Long Range Plan for Information Technology in the Federal Judiciary, subject to section 612 of Title 28, United States Code.
Thereby, with the integration of Information Technology across all functions of the judiciary, Court Records to have been digitized along with an electronic filing interface to update, operate and manage the said database. Hence Court Records collected from State Courts and their subsidiary trial courts in print are digitized and aggregated under the Public Access to Court Electronic Records Program (PACER) and the Case Management/Electronic Case Filing (CM/ECF) System.
Though not as comprehensive as PACER and CM/ECF, court records are also aggregated by the Law Library of the Congress in Paper, Microfilm, and Microfiche formats. All Court records follow the prescribed standard nomenclature and indexing procedure whereby any court record can be retrieved by use of a docket number i.e. the identifying number of a docket sheet in each case file. A docket sheet enlists all documents filed in a case and serves as an index of the entire case file or court record.
In their individual capacity, each State Court and Trial Court maintains its own repository of Court Records, Briefs and Oral arguments with electronic databases existing from the 1990s while printed transcripts may date back to over 2 to 3 centuries.
Most Courts also maintain copies in microfiche starting from the 1970s, although the initial complaints are not included in this format as they are very long. Furthermore, not all transcripts are available in the public information of court records and lately, audio, as well as audio-visual data of court proceedings, are part of court records.
A good example is the State of Mississippi where the Mississippi College School of Law compiled video archive coverage since 2004 and brief archive coverage since 2007. By 2021, the Government intends to get all Courts across the US to implement the CM/ECF system so that the aggregation, storage, and retrieval of Court Records become uniform all across PACER i.e. across the Nation.
Apart from Court Record Databases of Judicial institutions, electronic copies and electronic access of these records are also available through content aggregators such as Lexis Nexis, West Law, and Bloomberg. Some of these aggregators bank on better data search capabilities, especially when the citizen does not have a case file/docket number. Today, electronic copies of the majority of court records are available for free in Government and Non-Government databases.
Furthermore, CM/ECF also provides for translation and interpretation of Court Records in other languages with the top 9 being Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Russian, Arabic, Punjabi, Mixtec, Romanian and Haitian Creole.