From the Winter 2006 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 6.
Tracking missing cases in the federal courts isn’t difficult, it just takes time. And if you don’t do the work in the federal clerk’s office, it costs.
Either way, become familiar with the Case Management/Electronic Case Files, or CM/ECF, a Web-based case management system used by most federal bankruptcy and district courts. Some courts provide only civil case information on CM/ECF.
A handful of district courts are not yet using the system: the southern district of California, the southern district of Florida, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, the eastern district of Oklahoma, and the western district of Texas. Reporters interested in those courts can still track missing cases by reviewing the dockets at the courthouse using the principles outlined here for electronic searches.
If you want to access CM/ECF without leaving your newsroom or home computer, you must register with PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records. It’s free to register, but costs 8 cents per page to run reports, with a cap of $2.40 per document.
For more information and to register, go to http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov/
Accessing CM/ECF in the clerk’s office costs nothing — and it has the added advantage of clerks who can help navigate the computer system, which is user friendly.
Either way, go to the CM/ECF Web site for the court you are interested in. The site http://www.uscourts.gov/allinks.html provides links to all federal district and appellate courts.
Once you are on the court’s CM/ECF site, click on “Reports,” then choose either “Civil” or “Criminal.” For criminal cases, be sure to include all four types of defendants under “Case Flags”: “Pending, Terminated, Fugitive and Non-fugitive.” For civil cases, be sure to include both open and closed cases.
Choose an office — for example, White Plains or Foley Square, Manhattan, for the southern district of New York — and highlight “Criminal” under “Case types.”
Then plug in the dates you are searching for and click on “Run Report.” (We searched month by month from Jan. 1, 2001, to Dec. 31, 2005.)
A report will come up with the docket numbers for the time period searched. The docket numbers are sequential by year. For example, the first criminal case of 2005 is listed as 1:05-cr-0001, the second as 1:05-cr-0002 and so on. The first several numbers are likely to be old cases that were reopened in the time frame searched.
Read through the reports, searching for missing docket numbers. Then, to double check that the dockets are indeed missing, click on “Query” and enter each of the missing docket numbers. If the case is missing, the computer will tell you “No such case” or “Not a valid case number.”
After we came up with 469 missing criminal cases and 65 missing civil cases over the five-year period, we presented the intake records clerk with a list of the missing docket numbers. He entered a dozen or so in his computer and confirmed that the cases were completely sealed from the public — and were being kept off the docket.
“The case you specified is SEALED and you are not authorized to see it,” the computer on clerk Mike Darby’s desk told him.
That’s because only certain docket clerks — Darby is not one of them — have access to the section of the computer system used for docketing hidden cases.
And where do the case files of these super-secret cases go? In D.C.’s District Court, they go to what everyone in the courthouse calls “the vault,” though they declined to elaborate.
— Kirsten B. Mitchell
Melanie Marquez contributed research to this project.