Expert Commentary

How to find facts and stories in civil court dockets: 7 tips from a whistleblower attorney

A former journalist turned whistleblower attorney shares tips for journalists looking to mine information from U.S. court dockets.

court dockets
(Sear Greyson / Unsplash)

Last week, attorney Eugenie Reich shared tips and insights for finding facts and story ideas within court dockets for civil lawsuits, during an hourlong webinar hosted by The Journalist’s Resource.

Reich was an investigative reporter from 1998 to 2015, including for Nature, New Scientist and other science journalism outlets. She is author of the 2009 book “Plastic Fantastic,” chronicling the faked discovery of a superconductor made of plastic. Since 2018, she has worked in the Boston area as a lawyer representing whistleblowers.

A court docket is a record of everything that has happened during the course of a particular litigation, including court rulings, filings of key documents and notices of scheduled court hearings.

In the U.S., federal court dockets can be found via the Public Access to Court Electronic Records online portal, or PACER. State and local courts often have their own online systems for accessing dockets. Local courts sometimes call them “trial dockets” or “county dockets.”

Dockets, briefs, motions and other documents are ten cents per page on PACER with a cap of $3 per document. There is also a fee for searching PACER, which varies depending on the number of results.

There is no fee limit for searches, or for accessing transcripts — though the first $30 of charges per quarterly period is free. Learn more about PACER pricing.

Court opinions are always free on the platform, and through the U.S. Government Publishing Office. Case information is also free at any federal courthouse.

Watch the webinar and download the slides.

Historical and current meta data, such as when a case was filed, where and by whom, is available through the Integrated Database of the Federal Judicial Center.

There are other, fully free options for obtaining federal civil court records. Court Listener offers millions of opinions, dockets and documents. The RECAP browser extension automatically uploads to CourtListener case information that PACER users download. These and other tools, including alerts when federal dockets change, were created by the nonprofit Free Law Project.  

Keep reading for seven tips Reich shared about navigating court dockets, including when in the court proceedings facts begin to be presented to a judge, where to turn for help understanding dockets and why dockets can be useful sources of factual information, regardless of the legal outcome of a case.

1. Familiarize yourself with common terms and types of documents found within court dockets.

Legal arguments are the arguments lawyers make on behalf of their clients. These arguments center on interpretations of the law — meaning they may be subjective and motivated by gaining a favorable outcome for their side.

A motion to dismiss is a written request for a court to throw out a case based on the legal viability of its claim, not the facts presented. Even if a case is dismissed on legal grounds, “there still may be an ethical concern [reporters] would want to write about,” Reich said.

Facts will become particularly evident when you see a motion for summary judgment. This type of motion is one side claiming there are enough facts available for the court to make a judgment without having to go to a jury trial. A motion for partial summary judgment would refer only to specific parts of the case.

“Motion for summary judgment is the time when some people’s claims are going to be decided without [a] trial, so it needs to be a very factually sound kind of record for the court to get that ruling,” Reich said.

Look for a statement of material facts for fact-related filings. These are facts attorneys present to the court, for example, in support of a motion for summary judgment. They often include statements made under oath by people involved in the case, which may include private citizens, government officials or company representatives.

Another common term is a motion in limine, which is filed before a trial begins and is a request from one side asking the court not to admit certain evidence into the record at trial.

The discovery phase of a lawsuit is when both sides lay their supporting information and facts before the court. Look for attachments, which may include expert testimony, or affidavits, which are statements made by individuals under oath that the court has decided may be relevant to the case.

2. Reach out to lawyers not involved with the case you are covering for help understanding information in court dockets.

If you need additional help reading a docket, especially a complicated one spanning years with dozens or hundreds of motions and filings, reach out to lawyers who work within similar areas of the law but are not involved with the case you are covering.

“There are folks at law schools who are very good, there are people at nonprofits, there are people at law firms who may be happy to comment on other people’s cases,” Reich said.

Lawyers working on a case will be limited in their ability to comment by professional ethical rules. Still, attorneys actively involved in a litigation may be able and willing to describe their client’s claim or defense, help you understand information within a public record, and respond to statements made by others about their client’s case.

3. When you’re able, attend court hearings — the judge and parties may discuss information that is redacted in transcripts.  

Courts may take days or weeks to produce transcripts of important hearings and make them available online. They may also redact certain information — even if the hearing was open to the public.

In the Biogen case, a hearing in July 2022 ended up being the final one, with the sides settling shortly thereafter and before the case went to trial. Thirteen days later, the court released a redacted transcript of that hearing, which had been open to the public. 

“If people watch court calendars, as a general thing, then you might end up in a super interesting hearing that no one else is in,” Reich said.

4. Don’t be discouraged if documents — or even entire cases — are sealed.

Civil lawsuits may be sealed for a variety of reasons, including to give government authorities the chance to investigate potential legal wrongdoing before a court makes the details public. Note that cases under seal are not available on PACER.

Coming across sealed information within a docket doesn’t mean that information will never see the light of day. Many times, courts seal cases or documents temporarily, Reich says. News outlets sometimes file motions asking a court to fully or partially unseal documents related to a case.

But particularly complex cases may take years to become unsealed.

In one example, the U.S. Department of Justice in April 2012 filed a lawsuit against pharmaceutical firm Biogen for allegedly paying kickbacks to physicians who prescribed their drugs. The lawsuit wasn’t unsealed until July 2015.

5. Remember that court hearings often happen online.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many courts moved their hearings and other activity online. This is still the norm in courts around the U.S. — so if you can’t make it to a hearing in person, watching or listening to it online may be a good second option. Court staff will often help journalists find links to access live hearings.

“If you can inquire with clerks and you’re very nice and polite, they sometimes can direct you to where you can find a Zoom link,” Reich said.

6. Read scheduling orders to get a sense for when hearings will take place.

Scheduling orders within a docket show when and where a court will meet for further hearings in a case. Although dates can change, scheduling orders give a rough measure of when major proceedings will take place.

“It at least gives you an idea what the, if you like, pace of it is going to be,” Reich said.

7. Mine closed cases for information for facts and story ideas.

Factual information that emerges during a trial can be useful to reporters regardless of how and whether a case is decided or settled. Reich recalls a freedom of information lawsuit she filed in 2009 against the U.S. Department of Energy, during her time as a journalist.

She lost the case — she had sought a final report of an investigation into alleged scientific misconduct. The report had been created by a subcontractor and government officials never read it. For these reasons, the court decided the report was not subject to public records law.

Still, Reich wrote a follow-up story about public access to documents, based in part on affidavits and attachments in the court docket.

“There is a difference to understand between what you may be interested or can glean as a reporter from a court docket, and what might [legally] prevail,” she said.

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