November 2014 • Volume 102 • Number 11 • Page 552
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Finding Illinois Law
Federal and Illinois Court Dockets: What’s Online?
After an initial scare, the federal courts decided to keep docket information in the PACER system. Unfortunately, electronic Illinois docket info is harder to find.
On August 11, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts announced it was pulling docket information out of PACER, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records database that covers the U.S. federal courts (other than the Supreme Court). Among the courts affected was the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, which stood to lose online access to all closed case files for cases filed before January 1, 2008.
The reason given for this change was that the affected records were incompatible with the latest generation of PACER, called NextGen CM/ECF (Case Management/Electronic Case Files).1 The loss of access also applied to commercial vendors such as Bloomberg, Lexis, and Westlaw.
The good news is that the administrative office reversed course and decided to put the information back into PACER.2 While PACER has long made federal court docket information available, it's been much harder to find state court docket information.
In Illinois state courts, availability of online docket information varies. For some courts, patrons must actually visit the court clerk's brick-and-mortar facility to get docket information. Let's take a look at the options.
Availability of online docket information is sometimes tied to electronic filing. Courts that allow electronic filing of pleadings generally have a more robust online docket system. Few states, however, have robust online filing. According to a 2011 survey by the National Center for State Courts, only five - Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Nebraska, and Utah - had statewide e-filing.3
In Illinois, e-filing is still relatively rare: the supreme court and nine counties allow e-filing (and two of those have yet to implement their programs). To further complicate things, five different vendors serve the eight jurisdictions in Illinois with e-filing.4
However, electronic access to circuit court dockets has slightly outpaced availability of e-filing. Neither the Illinois Supreme Court nor the Illinois Appellate Court offers electronic access to their case dockets online, but some circuit courts provide online access.
Unlike with PACER, though, where the user can often download a particular document, the Illinois circuit courts only provide a list of the filings themselves - i.e., a docket sheet. An in-person visit is usually required to view a particular filing for free (some commercial vendors do provide access to the documents themselves).
The Illinois Association of Court Clerks list
Helpfully, the Illinois Association of Court Clerks maintains a webpage linking to each clerk of court's website for viewing circuit court records.5 At the time of writing, at least 67 of Illinois' 102 counties (roughly two-thirds) provide online searching of court records.
However, it's worth checking even if a county is not listed on the page as having electronic access. For instance, Lake County and Will County, the third and fourth most-populated counties in the state, are not listed as having online access, although they do.
Perhaps someday Illinois will offer universal access to docket sheets, along with access to actual documents in the court's file. We are nowhere near that point yet, though some commercial vendors are now providing some documents from some counties (the amount is minimal thus far). At the very least, let's hope we can avoid what almost happened with PACER: the (near) disappearance of years' worth of court records.
Tom Gaylord is a law librarian at Northwestern University School of Law.
- Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, "Changes to Information Available on PACER," Aug. 11, 2014, available at https://www.pacer.gov/announcements/general/webpacer.html (all websites last visited Sept. 21, 2014).
- Andrea Peterson, "Online Court Archive PACER Says It Will Restore Access to Missing Records," Wash. Post "The Switch" Blog (Sept. 19, 2014), http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2014/09/19/online-court-archive-pacer-says-it-will-restore-access-to-missing-records/. Access for the four affected U.S. Courts of Appeals was to be restored by the end of October. This column was written prior to the restoration of access, so at the time of writing, it is unknown whether the Administrative Office met its deadline.
- National Center for State Courts, "2011 Technology Survey Results: Court Automation and E-Filing Revenue," available at http://www.ncsc.org/~/media/Files/PDF/Services%20and%20Experts/Areas%20of%20expertise/Technology/Court%20Automation%20and%20E-filing%20Revenue-v2.ashx.
- Illinois Courts, "E-Business for the Courts - Electronic Filing," available at http://www.state.il.us/court/EBusiness/Electronic_Filing.asp.
- Illinois Association of Court Clerks, "Search Court Records," available at http://www.ilcourtclerks.org/search-court-records/.