This presentation shows you how to use the PACER Case Locator to find federal court
records. It’s intended for those who have never used it, or who infrequently use it.
The PACER Case Locator serves as an online index to federal civil and criminal court
records nationwide. While exact date coverage varies by court, the index generally
covers the mid- to late-1990s to present. Appellate level coverage tends to be more
recent. In some courts, the case filings as well as the case information (parties,
lawyers, judge) is available.
Before you begin using the locator service, you must register
(http://www.pacer.gov/register.html) with PACER. There is no cost for registration.
However, those who register with a credit card (for the purpose of future charges) will
receive their login and password information faster. From the PACER Web site: “If you
provide a credit card at the time of registration, you will receive an email with
instructions on how to retrieve your new login and password. If you do not provide a
credit card, the login and password will be sent by U.S. mail to the address provided
on the registration form. Please allow 7-10 days for mail delivery. For an expedited
registration, provide a credit card during registration.”
Select the tab relevant to your research issue. Do you want to search all courts, or just
bankruptcy, civil or criminal (etc) matters?
Select the court or region you want to search. Then enter the case number (if you
know it) or a party name search. Enter the query using last name first as illustrated in
the screen shot.
When conducting due diligence, it’s best to search broadly – without a middle initial
and perhaps using just the first 2 or 3 characters of the first name (trump, don). Do not
check “exact matches only.”
Check the box labeled “Show Case Title” to display the case name in the search results.
Take care that you don’t miss relevant information by using a query that is too narrow.
Courts are not consistent about indexing a person’s middle initial.
Could any of the 7 cases indexed without the middle initial, J, be relevant to the
research subject? The only way to know is to review the filings for each case. To do so,
follow the link for the case number.
This is the typical menu you see for civil cases. To review the documents filed in the
case (assuming they are available), follow the link for History/Documents.
This is the menu for retrieving the docket sheet. Check the box to display the docket
text. You can sort by newest document first, if you wish.
This is a partial docket sheet for May v. Bucklew (see previous slide), 2000 cv 02079,
MDFL. The return of service (#13) is a good document to check when you are looking
for information on the party served; e.g., the service location.
PACER is good about warning you when you are about to incur charges. It costs $.08 to
download the return of service document. Click View Document to complete the
The service location – Trump Organization in West Palm Beach – clearly indicates that
the case is relevant to Donald J. Trump even though the court didn’t index it using
Trump’s middle initial.
This is another example of a query that is too restrictive. In the next slides, note the
difference in the number of results when you truncate “incorporated.”
See the PACER FAQ (www.pacer.gov/psc/faq.html) for specific charges.
When documents are not available online, it’s best to call and ask about their
availability. Case filings are eventually archived. Archived cases take a few weeks to
This example illustrates the availability of court filings.