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Court Records and Briefs in the Law Library
Court records and briefs are the documents submitted to or created by a court in a particular case. Briefs are submitted by attorneys to the court for the purpose of summarizing facts and making legal arguments. The record contains all other documentation that usually relates to the facts of the case and, if on appeal, the decision making process of the lower court. The record frequently contains items such as transcripts, documentation about items admitted into evidence, instructions to the jury, and opinions of the lower court. These documents can all be valuable in understanding what arguments were persuasive to the court and to get a better understanding of the underlying issues, especially factual issues that are often not reviewed in detail in published court opinions.
The availability of records and briefs varies widely by jurisdiction. Records and briefs for many older cases (pre-2000) are not available online. In addition, some dockets are sealed (e.g., to protect victims in criminal cases) and are inaccessible even in print.
This guide explains where to find U.S. Federal and state records and briefs online and how to access the print and microfilm records and briefs held by the Kathrine R. Everett Law Library, which includes records and briefs from the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Fourth Circuit (covering North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia), the North Carolina Court of Appeals, and the North Carolina Supreme Court. The information is organized into the following pages:
Although some records and briefs databases allow for full-text keyword searching (e.g., for searches by topic), it is usually most helpful to have the following information on hand when searching for records and briefs:
Several commercial databases now compile electronic copies of court records and briefs from the Federal courts and from the growing number of state courts that make their records available online. If you have access to these databases, they can be a good place to start your search. The three listed below can be searched by docket information (docket number, names of parties, etc.) or by full-text search of the docket contents. UNC Law-affiliated researchers have access to the following databases:
Bloomberg Law provides docket information and full-text access to electronic records and briefs from 2000 forward for almost all Federal courts (with much more selective coverage before 2000). Bloomberg also includes selective state court coverage, mostly limited to recent cases, with the earliest beginning around 2000 (navigate to "Litigation and Dockets > Docket Coverage" for the full list and coverage information). In general, trial court dockets are available, but full-text access to records and briefs is often limited to appellate-level proceedings.
Westlaw provides similar coverage for Federal courts. Westlaw also includes some selective coverage of state court records and briefs, generally limited to recent cases, with the earliest beginning around 2000. In general, trial court dockets are available, but full-text access to records and briefs is often limited to appellate-level proceedings. See this Westlaw guide for searching Federal and state records and briefs in the Westlaw system.
LexisNexis provides similar coverage for Federal courts. Coverage for state courts varies; generally, full-text access to records and briefs is available for appellate proceedings, but trial court coverage is more limited. To search, on LexisNexis Advanced, select "Dockets" as content type. On classic LexisNexis, navigate to "Legal > Court Records, Briefs and Filings."
U.S. Supreme Court records and briefs are widely available in both electronic and print dating back to the Court's earliest sessions in 1792. Most cases before the Supreme Court are heard at the discretion of the court. Discretionary review is requested when a petitioner files a petition for a writ of certiorari (cert.) explaining the merits of the case and arguing for why the case is a good candidate for Supreme Court review. If cert. is granted by the Court, the case proceeds to a hearing and decision on the merits. Both merits briefs and briefs petitioning for cert. are available, though petitions for cert. in cases where cert. was denied are somewhat more difficult to locate.
U.S. Supreme Court Records and Briefs Digital Archive, 1832-1978, Making of Modern Law Collection(available to UNC campus)
LexisNexis (UNC Law affiliated users with password)
Westlaw (UNC Law affiliated users with password)
Print and microfiche access in the Kathrine R. Everett Law Library
The Law Library maintains records and briefs of the U.S. Supreme Court in print, microfilm, and microform formats. These are especially helpful for those seeking older (pre-1832) briefs) not available online. By date, these include:
1793-present: Landmark Briefs and Arguments of the Supreme Court of the United States: Constitutional Law (KF101.8 .K87; 1st floor)
1832-1896: U.S. Supreme Court Records and Briefs (Microfilm: KF101.9 .U54; 3rd floor).
1895-present: U.S. Supreme Court Records and Briefs (Microfilm: KF101.9 .U54; 3rd floor).
1952-1968: Oral Arguments of the Supreme Court; 1968-present: Complete Oral Arguments of the Supreme Court (Microfiche: KF101.9 .O65; 3rd floor)
Records and briefs from the Federal Court system are generally accessible online for cases filed since 2000. Records and briefs for cases filed before that time have been selectively digitized and are sometimes only available in print or microform from the courts themselves.
The Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system is the official Federal portal for online access to court dockets, records, and briefs for U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, U.S. District Courts, and U.S. Bankruptcy Courts. Electronic docket information, records, and briefs are generally available for case from 2000 to present except for several Circuit Courts of Appeal (and one Bankruptcy Court). PACER announced in August 2014 that it was disabling access for cases filed prior to the following dates: 2nd Circuit (January 1, 2010), 7th Circuit (January 1, 2008), 11th Circuit (January 1, 2010), Federal Circuit (January 1, 2012), and the Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California (January 1, 2001).
If you are a law student and need to use PACER as a part of your research for a journal or class, or for a faculty-approved project, please visit the reference desk. Because there is a cost associated with PACER use, the library is only authorized to run PACER searches for limited academically approved searches for law students and faculty. In most cases, it is quicker and easier to use one of the commercial databases (listed below) that make available all PACER content to subscribers.
Because UNC Law users already have access to records and briefs through Bloomberg Law, Westlaw, and LexisNexis, we encourage those users to access federal court dockets through those databases. Bloomberg Law maintains access to the full set of materials on PACER, and Westlaw and LexisNexis provide access to select materials. They also have enhanced search features and do not require separate billing. Additionally, Westlaw provides selective coverage of some U.S. Courts of Appeals briefs dating back to 1972.
For finding older federal court records and briefs, see the Union List of Appellate Court Records and Briefs: Federal and State (available online to UNC users, in print in the law library at KF105.9 .W49 1998, 2nd Floor) which lists libraries and archives that hold print and microfilm copies of records and briefs. You may also be able to obtain copies of older records and briefs directly from the court or from the National Archives.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
In addition to electronic access for recent cases, discussed above, the Law Library has copies of records and briefs for many cases heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. This court hears cases on appeal from U.S. district courts in North Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia. Earlier case records and briefs are indexed by docket number rather than case citation.
1892-1987: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Briefs and Records (KF 112.9 4th .A3, 1st floor)
1986-2008: U.S.Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Records and Briefs (Microform: KF112.9 .A3 1st floor)
The North Carolina Supreme Court has both civil and criminal jurisdiction and hears cases on appeal from the N.C. Court of Appeals and from the North Carolina Industrial Commission.
In the North Carolina court system, the North Carolina Supreme Court and the North Carolina Court of Appeals make available selected court filings for cases from 2000 to present. This database, available through the NC Appellate Courts Electronic Filing website allows users to search by case number, party name, attorney name, case title, date, and court. North Carolina does not currently use electronic filing for trial court documents (though a pilot project is underway); records and briefs from those courts are not generally available online.
The earliest records available in the Law Library date from 1874 and are available in printed format. An index to each of the courts' records and briefs is available at the library reference desk. In addition, an index to the print volumes of the North Carolina Supreme Court is located on the first floor at the very end of the print volumes. A partial index to N.C. Supreme Court briefs and records is shelved at the end of those volumes. Please be aware that the Law Library is in the process of digitizing its collection of North Carolina records and briefs. If a volume is missing, please ask at the Reference Desk.
1874-2000: North Carolina Supreme Court. North Carolina Appeals Record (KFN 7445.9 .A3 1st floor).
1982-date: North Carolina Supreme Court. North Carolina Appeals Record (Microfiche: KFN 7445.9 .A3 1st floor)
1876-1939: North Carolina Supreme Court. North Carolina Appeals Record: Unreported Cases (KFN7445.9 .N67 1st floor)
1968-2000: North Carolina Court of Appeals. (KFN 7448.9 .A3)