Public court records are available to anyone who wants to take the time to find them. Appellate and supreme court decisions at the state and federal levels are usually available online, and specialty websites have records for criminal offenses and sex crimes. Some states maintain websites for public use for free, and some counties keep the property records online. You can find most public court records for free with online resources and a little search time.
Assemble all the information you can about the lawsuit or court action. Important information includes the names of the parties, the court of record, the number assigned by the court, the date of filing the first pleading and the category of the lawsuit. Know if the case is civil or criminal, since there are different databases for each type. Cases with the state as plaintiff are usually criminal actions. The style of the case is all the information above the title of the pleading, and this is usually the information needed to find the case.
Decide what part of the court record you want to review. The decision or judgment of appellate cases and supreme court rulings are usually the only part of the case available online. If you need pleadings or personal information about the parties, you may have to check the physical record where the filing took place. The online version may have the facts you are seeking because there is usually a detailed synopsis of the case within the opinion.
Determine whether the case is still in progress or if it is completed. A completed case has a judgment or final decision. Cases that are not yet completed are not usually available online, but the local newspapers often have articles relating to lawsuits. Use a free website like the University of North Carolina-Greensboro's for newspapers organized by state to locate information about lawsuits in any region of the country.
Locate state court appellate and supreme court decisions for free at the Cornell University website, which has the opinions sorted by state. United States Supreme Court decisions are available for free at the National Technical Information Services division of the Supreme Court. Some states like California have a free public records website and there are other public records websites that cover many, but not all of the states, with records available. (See Resources.) Use a free trial of Westlaw and Lexis websites if the information you seek is not on the other websites.
Check specialty websites like the National Sex Offender Public Website or Family Watchdog for criminal convictions. Some states maintain a website for a state registry of sex offenders and cities and counties are placing this information online.
Work with the information from one website to another, and from the national websites to the state, then the county and newspapers to locate public court records online.
- courthouse image by Michael Shake from Fotolia.com