Federal Court Records for Genealogy Research

Using modern federal court records in Genealogy Research.

The records generated in a court case or filing are among the most valuable records that a researcher can come across.  We are familiar with government records from two main sources – the executive (administrative departments) branch and the judiciary  (courts). Well-known examples from the judiciary are immigration-related records such as naturalization and probate, estate related records.  Less often genealogists are not familiar about using case records.

Free resources exist for the researcher to access/search historical records of federal or state-level cases in various archives but for modern cases (since about 1970) one usually needs access to PACER – acronym for Public Access to Court Electronic Records. PACER is an electronic public access service that allows users to obtain case and docket information online from federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts, and the PACER Case Locator. From the site: “PACER is provided by the Federal Judiciary in keeping with its commitment to providing public access to court information via a centralized service accessible at http://www.pacer.gov

I recently obtained case documents about a relative that I knew little about that included witness statements from other family members describing marriage, birth and immigration information.  This helped tremendously in my genealogy research!

PACER has a very good search tool for searching for case information by Party name (plaintiff or defendant or attorney).  Of course the best type of record a researcher would hope to find is where their subject is referenced in a case. You can see some information about a case from the search results but the desired information is of course in the case documentation. These documents are digitized and attached to a sequence of calendared events in the case such as a filing of a motion by one of the parties. PACER does charge a small fee to view/download documents, usually $0.10 per page.

While you are searching and browsing you are presented a transaction receipt at the bottom of the page to indicate the fee.Pacer Transaction receipt

Usage which generates fees less than $15 per calendar quarter is free, the  fees are waived.  A statement is mailed to you after the end of each quarter.  Specific registration, fee and usage policies can be found on the PACER site

From the website NewspaperLinks: “In 2013, it was estimated that there were more than 500 million .pdf documents available for online viewing and downloading via PACER. Although new users must register and provide credit card or checking account details, PACER waives all usage fees totaling less than $15 USD per 3-month quarter. PACER is by far the best way to conduct legal research at little or no cost.”

I encourage genealogy researchers to obtain a free PACER account and use these valuable records to further their research.

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How to DECREASE your blog’s following

Most often we write blogs and post to Twitter and Facebook to discover new tips and resources and to share success stories among the genealogical community.  I have noticed something in the last few months that can decrease your readership and prompt others to stop sharing and following.

You probably can guess by now that I am writing about divisive posts about opinions on subjects such as politics or other non-genealogy related controversial topics in the news.  If you want to alienate a portion of your followers and readers post a rant or share a post from a celebrity or politician that you strongly identify with.

Why does someone do this?  It seems to me that the author of the post has strong feelings about the subject and wants others to know about them and we want others to acknowledge and ratify our viewpoint.  While this may have the intended effect with some readers it will also alienate readers who do not hold the same sympathies.  If the topic is not related somehow to family history then the alienated reader is likely to leave your site, blog or group and not return.  I know that this has been my experience both on the posting side and the reading side.  If you lose a reader or follower you may lose out on future discoveries.

My suggestion?  Accommodate your non-genealogy feelings by opening a separate account on Twitter or start a different group on Facebook where you can post non-genealogy opinions without expecting to alienate family history researchers and extended family members.  In a large extended family I have many members with diverse views and opinions.  I want them to freely share old photos and stories.

Do you have any suggestions or comments about this topic?

Tracking Newly Released Collections

Newly updated and newly released digital collections are always exciting to discover – kind of like opening a new present!

But how does one know what has just been released?  Each hosting site does things a little different but the two sites I go to most often are FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com

In FamilySearch.org click on Search and you will see a page with a world map.  Click the link “Browse All Published Collections”FS World Map

Then you will see a list of all of their collections.  Simply click on the column header “Last Updated” and the collection will be sorted to show the most recently updated ones at the top.


For Ancestry.com – Look for the “Search” button on the main toolbar on the Home page.  Hover over that button and when the menu appears click on Card Catalog.

Ancestry Card Catalog1

When viewing the card catalog of collections there is a handy “Sort By” drop-down menu to bring up the most recently added collections.

I hope this helps you keep current on new collections as they are released.  Feedback on this article and suggestions are welcome!