Courts that enforce the law of the United States are typically referred to as federal courts. The term “federal,” although not a strictly American word, almost always demands a U.S. meaning when used in a legal context. Federal court records are the documents and files that federal courts throughout the United States keep on cases that they hear and decide. The types of federal court records vary from court to court. All courts must maintain case files and docketing information and must make this information publicly available, but the details and duration of that availability are usually left up to the court.
The types of records that a federal court keeps usually varies based on what kind of a court it is. The federal district courts, which are national-level trial courts, have one set of rules, while federal appellate courts and federal bankruptcy courts have others. The Supreme Court, which is the highest federal court, also has its own recording and publication system. The types of federal court records available and their format will vary depending on the court.
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Although the formats may be different, most federal court records in all federal courts are accessible through a case file. The case file is a singular file, but it usually contains many different individual records. The file usually starts with a docket sheet, which serves as a sort of table of contents for the file. It lists the parties and the date that the lawsuit was initiated, and goes on to name every filing, briefing, and ruling in chronological order.
The contents of a case file are wholly dependent on the facts of the case and the actions of the parties. If the plaintiff filed a second, amended complaint, for instance, that complaint will become a part of the case file, and thus a court record. Other case files may include jury instructions or motions for summary judgment, but only if relevant to the case at hand. There is no set formula for what a case file must contain, and federal records encompass the whole breadth of filings.
Federal court records are matters of public interest, and as such are publicly accessible. Paper copies of case files and other records are usually available for free, in-person viewing at the courthouse, so long as the case file is relatively recent. The different courts have different rules about how long a case file must be maintained, but it is usually about a ten-year window. After that time, some records are destroyed, while others are moved out to be archived, thus freeing up space in the courthouse for new case files. Archived cases can be retrieved, but this usually costs a small fee and can take a bit of time.
Some federal court records, particularly those in federal bankruptcy court, can be accessed at least superficially over the telephone. Internet access is also becoming popular across the federal court system. The Federal Judiciary — which is a government body that oversees the federal courts — in 1999 introduced an electronic case filing system. That system began as an optional program, but all federal courts have participated by uploading completed case files to the system at least. These files can be accessed anywhere there is an Internet connection.
Widespread availability of federal court records is essential to legal research. Lawyers who are building cases usually find it helpful to study how courts have handled similar cases in the past. Judges, too, must look at — and usually defer to — other rulings on similar facts. The federal courts are spread throughout the country, but all aim to apply the same law. Federal court records from one court are usually thus persuasive in another.
The ability to access a case files does not necessarily mean that the files are available for public viewing, copying, or download, however. Some federal court proceedings are confidential. While they are still recorded, those records are private. Usually, court documents that are confidential are designated as “filed under seal.” The parties’ names and the date of case initiation are sometimes all that is available to the public until the seal is lifted.