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.