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The United State Court System, an Eye for Research
by: Matthew Abts
A Cup of Tea, Coffee, or Something Else www.quiettable.com
Whenever investigating an individual or business, one of the most basic checks is for lawsuits, criminal charges, and bankruptcy filings. But how do you research the court system? Is there one simple site to go to where you pop in a name and are rewarded with a listing of all court filings across the country pertaining to that individual? No such luck ... yet, anyway! To understand court research, you first need to understand a bit about the USA's court system.
There are two major separate court entities in the USA, the State court system and the Federal court system. The Federal court system is divided into three branches, the federal criminal, civil, bankruptcy, and appeals courts. These courts are not 'single entities' -- there are a number of federal courts scattered across the United States, each covering a certain geographic district within a 'circuit'. For a map of the circuits, see www.uscourts.gov/images/CircuitMap.pdf. For example, there is a Northern Mississippi district court, as well as a Southern. Cases are prosecuted by US Attorneys, who are elected, or Assistant US Attorneys, who are government employees. Regarding federal law, federal statutes are divided into sections called Titles. Title 11, for example, deals with bankcruptcy, and under that Title you will find Chapters, such as Chapter 7 regarding liquidation of a business. All personal and business bankruptcies fall under federal statutes and are dealt with in federal court, and bankruptcies make up nearly 70% of all federal court cases. This makes researching whether an individual has a history of bankcruptcy a considerably simpler matter, since only the relevant federal court needs to be searched. Title 18 contains the majority of the criminal statutes for the federal criminal court. Note that in many cases it can be decided for an individual to be tried in the federal rather than State court system, under federal-question jurisdiction rules, for a variety of reasons. For example, in a recent case where two teens burned a cross in a black family's yard, it was decided to prosecute them in federal rather than State court -- the penalties that could be imposed by the federal court system were greater. Likewise, cases involving citizens from different States will be tried in Federal courts if the monetary amount involved in the case is greater than $75,000. There are a number of other types of cases that are likewise defaulted to federal court, including cases involving patents or copyrights, cases challenging State laws (usually for Constitutional reasons), and cases involving federal agencies.
The State court system is somewhat more complex in its terminology, since this terminology differs from State to State, but in the end the terminology resolves into a system of 'upper' and 'lower' courts in civil and criminal matters. The State civil court was an 'upper' and 'lower' court, as does the State criminal court. In some States, these are referred to as the 'supreme' and 'county' courts, or the 'superior' and 'justice' courts. The upper courts tend to deal with more important subjects, or crimes with stiffer penalties (such as armed robbery, cases of gross malpractice, and often divorce). Lower courts will deal with misdemeanor crimes and small money claims (ie, small claims court). In criminal cases of all sorts, the prosecutor is usually the United States government (from the State's attorney office), and the case will be lised as The State of Wherever V. Lastname. Upper and lower courts are relatively simple to understand -- big money cases or cases involving serious crimes go the upper, and everything of lesser importance to the lower, but don't forget that most divorces are tried in the upper court! Unfortunately, the State court system doesn't stop there, but also includes, depending on the State, a variety of other courts such as the municipal court or traffic court, which handle matters specific to their speciality (ie, argue traffic tickets in traffic court). There are also appellate courts, for dealing with appeals.
So, now that we understand the court system a bit better, how do we go about finding court records? For Federal courts, this is a relatively simple matter: The majority of records are accessible through a system called PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). PACER allows searching different courts by a variety of fields, including name. You as a citizen can sign up for PACER with a credit card at http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov/ -- the service isn't free, but only charges a few dollars for good documentation on most cases. Note that some districts still aren't in the PACER system (for example, the Alaska district court) -- in this case, you can always pay a visit to the nearest district federal courthouse. Every district has one, and the records should be open to the public for free. Feel free to drive there and peruse! If the district court is further than you want to travel, there are courthouse researchers across the country who make a living looking up court records for those to far away from the court to visit in person.
State records are somewhat more complex. To access these records over the Internet, not only should the State records be online, but also the individual county in question. Most State higher court and appellate courts are online with free searching, but many lower (county) courts are not, only offer some records, or charge high fees. Of course, if you're only interested in researching cases in your area, all you need to do is drive to your local county courthouse, where the records are, by Federal law, public access. Your county courthouse should not charge you a fee to access these records, they should be free to peruse. Charging a fee online is for 'electronic access', not for seeing the actual documents themselves. Once again, if the county is outside your area you can hire a courtresearcher to do the job for you. To find county court researches and county/State courts on the Internet, simply do a search engine search for 'Countyname county court', and follow the links from there.
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