Vol. 80, No. 10, October 2007
Legal researchers in Wisconsin are fortunate, because all three branches of government promote public access to information. The advent of the Internet has changed how this information is accessible to individuals; for example, Wisconsin Attorney General Opinions, pending legislation, and many court decisions are available online.
Not too long ago, a trip or phone call to the courthouse was required for attorneys and researchers to obtain civil and criminal dockets. That all changed in 1999 when Wisconsin became one of the first states to offer a statewide online database to access dockets. The database, commonly referred to as the Consolidated Court Automation Program (CCAP), revolutionized the accessibility of this information, and it continues to be a dynamic tool.
This article discusses Wisconsin's online docket database and looks at the status of online access in some other states. Many searchers assume that all states have a CCAP equivalent and become frustrated if they cannot locate a state's Web site. This article offers some direction when searching for states' circuit court dockets. This discussion is not an in-depth investigation of the legal issues surrounding public access, nor is it a 50-state survey; it simply serves as a guide to the current landscape of state court dockets.
Wisconsin Explores the New Frontier
CCAP was launched in April 1999. The surge of court record requests provided the impetus for placing the information on a Web-based database. According to the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access Oversight Committee Final Report dated March 2006, the site averages about a million data requests a day.1 Each of the 72 counties went "live" on CCAP at different times, and historical coverage varies between counties. For example, Walworth County has dockets from 2003 forward whereas Adams County has dockets from 1992. Researchers sometimes forget these differences, which have an obvious effect on search results. Current coverage also is not uniform. For example, Portage County only has probate cases in the database while the other counties have civil, criminal, and probate cases in the database. To determine the coverage for a specific county, consult the comprehensive listing located on CCAP's "frequently asked questions" page before searching.2
A recent addition to CCAP is the detailed executive case summary found on criminal dockets. The summary, which appears before the main data, explains the disposition of the case and clarifies the matter and its outcome, with the goal of reducing the potential for misuse.3 In its March 2006 report, the oversight committee made several other suggestions to improve the Web site, including altering the introductory paragraph on the entry page to describe the site to the layperson. The committee also made recommendations to the Director of State Courts regarding the length of time records should remain on the system.
CCAP Search Tips
Wisconsin provides premier access to court dockets. To take full advantage of the information, proper query formatting is imperative, and searchers need to implement some simple strategies. When looking for a company, make sure to use the asterisk/wildcard, because doing so may produce significantly more cases. For example, instead of searching for S.D. Halson Inc., use S.D. Halson*. Doing so will bring up a results list that will include all the variations possible - S.D. Halson & Sons S.C., Halson Corp. S.C., Halson Inc., and so on. Use the "advanced search" screen and query by State Bar membership number when researching other cases handled by a Wisconsin-licensed attorney. Narrow your search by class code, case type, county, or filing date when the result list is extraordinarily long. When searching for an individual, do not forget to use name variations (for example, William, Bill, Wm.).
A Look Around the Nation
Attorneys and legal researchers value the information made available by Wisconsin courts. When research takes the searcher to other states' courts, however, the question becomes whether those states have sites similar to Wisconsin's. Often the answer is "No."
Wisconsin was one of the first states to provide online statewide access to court dockets. Almost 10 years later, few other states provide a single uniform database for their entire state. Arizona operates a statewide system but not all the counties have yet made the migration to the online system.4 A great feature offered by Arizona is the ability to monitor a case and receive email updates. Oklahoma's statewide system does not include all of its counties, but the main screen clearly identifies which counties are searchable, when data was first added, and the last time each county updated the information.5
Some jurisdictions are concerned about providing online access to criminal dockets because of privacy and discrimination issues. Connecticut has offered access to civil cases for quite some time but just added criminal dockets in 2007, and it limits the criminal information to only the daily dockets.6 Some states, like Hawaii,7 offer databases covering only civil, probate, and family cases. Other states, including North Dakota8 and Washington,9 provide free access to civil, criminal, and traffic cases.
Alabama10 and Colorado11 are examples of states that offer complete to nearly-complete county coverage, but the courts use commercial vendors and access is fee-based. Nebraska offers statewide searching for a fee administered through the state and offers one-time searches via credit card.12 Other states, like South Carolina, are just implementing their statewide systems, with testing currently only in some counties.
Kentucky allows searching of both civil and criminal cases; however, the result list only provides the case number and title.13 Although no detailed information is available, the display will indicate if there is a scheduled event (for example, motion, trial) and its date.
Limited or No Online Coverage
It is common for individual counties to offer online access when no statewide system exists. In this situation, the county clerk of court's office most often controls the interface available to the public. States in which counties have developed their own public access systems include Illinois, Minnesota, Alaska, Florida, and Ohio. Conducting online docket research in these states can be frustrating due to the lack of thorough records.
Many states have not implemented any online public access to court dockets. Sometimes this is due to funding issues, but more often states hesitate because of privacy issues, possible misuse, redacting, possible discrimination, and identity theft.
Whatever the reason, several states appear to have no CCAP equivalent either in a statewide or individual county format. Some of those states include Wyoming, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, and North Dakota. A researcher can still, however, physically go to the courthouse or use a document retrieval company to obtain the information in those states.
Benefits to Researchers
Some statewide and individual county Web sites offer features that truly benefit researchers. For example, some California counties supply links to the actual documents. Some sites, such as that of Noble County, Indiana, offer a daily-calendar search option. As previously mentioned, some states include a notification service for monitoring specific cases.
Many states, including Wisconsin, have begun experimenting with electronic filing. Some states plan to simultaneously launch e-filing capability and searchable databases.
Three nationwide Web sites excel at staying abreast of the status of each state's provision of online access to court dockets. The first is the National Center for State Courts (www.ncsconline.org). The Center maintains a Web page in its "COURTOPICS" section entitled "Public Access to Court Records." This regularly updated page lists states that provide online access.14 The brief summary provides each court's information and notes whether there are associated charges for obtaining information.
The second site is the Virtual Chase's Civil and Criminal Court Records (http://www.virtualchase.com/topics/court_records.shtml). The Virtual Chase is an excellent legal research site created by Genie Tyburski and sponsored by Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll LLP. The site provides detailed state summaries and clearly identifies changes and updates.
LLRX (www.llrx.com) is the third site that effectively monitors online state court dockets. Founder Sabrina Pacifici is the editor and publisher of this spectacular legal research and technology site. To search state dockets via LLRX, choose the "Court Rules, Forms & Dockets" link from the main menu bar. The searcher then can use the "Browse" function to select a particular state or scroll down and link directly to a state.
Multi-jurisdictional searches can present many problems, and searching each individual site can be time-consuming. Using a reliable public records company, LEXIS' Courtlink15 or Westlaw's Court Express16 may be the most efficient and effective method to accomplish searches spanning several states.
Searching circuit court dockets in Wisconsin is accomplished via CCAP. Information seekers often take this service for granted. Many states have yet to develop an online database. Some only make particular counties available. Online availability is progressing at different speeds throughout the United States and currently is available on a limited basis. To effectively conduct a non-Wisconsin docket search, the researcher should start with the National Center for State Courts, the Virtual Chase, or LLRX, or call the court's clerk to inquire if an online database is available.
1Wisconsin Circuit Court Access Oversight Committee.
2WCCA Frequently Asked Questions #3, "When Wisconsin Counties Began Using CCAP".
3Wisconsin Circuit Court Access Oversight Committee Final Report, March 2006, at 3.
4Arizona Judicial Branch, Public Access to Court Information.
5Oklahoma District Court Records.
6Connecticut Civil/Family Case Inquiry, Connecticut Criminal Dockets.
7Hawaii State Judiciary, Ho'ohiki.
8North Dakota District Court Case Information.
9Washington Court Case Searching.
10Alabama Court Record Access.
11Colorado Web sites, <https://www.cocourts.com>, <http://www.cojustice.com/>.
12Nebraska Trial Courts Case System (JUSTICE).
13Kentucky Court of Justice.
14From "Public Access to Court Records" page, choose "State Links" and then "Public Access Web Sites" found on the top menu bar.