Sometimes, you will come across citations to court documents other than published cases (e.g., court pleadings, briefs, slip opinions, unpublished opinions). Some of these items can be difficult to obtain. The following are some sources that may prove useful in your search for these types of documents:
Westlaw and LexisAdvance
Both Westlaw and Lexis have a variety of court documents. These include pleadings and other documents filed in trial courts, appellate briefs, docket sheets (i.e., lists of documents filed in a case), and actual trial transcripts. In some instances, these documents are available in PDF. Both Westlaw and Lexis are also good sources for recent opinions that have not yet been published, as well as opinions that will never be published. Keep in mind that only selected court documents from selected cases are included on these systems.
On Westlaw there are several categories of court documents listed on the “Browse – All Content” screen. On LexisAdvance, they can be found by filtering one’s search to the “Briefs, Pleadings, and Motions” or "Dockets" categories
U.S. Supreme Court Records and Briefs, 1832-1978
This database, available through the law library’s Online Resources page, contains PDF images of briefs and other documents submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court between 1832 and 1978. Documents can be searched in this database by keyword, case name, docket number, U.S Reports citation, etc.
More recent Supreme Court briefs can be found in a variety of other databases, including Westlaw, Lexis, and the American Bar Association's "Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases" webpage (2004-current terms). Briefs for selected years are also available in the law library’s microfiche collection.
More and more courts are making their own court documents available on their websites. Each site is organized differently, but usually, there will be links on the main page directing you to these documents. Keep in mind that these sites will typically only contain documents from recent cases.
PACER is an online service that provides access to court documents from certain federal courts (including the U.S. District Courts, Bankruptcy Courts, and Courts of Appeals). PACER is available to law students through Bloomberg Law, a subscription-based legal online service similar to Lexis and Westlaw. All law students can set up a Bloomberg Law account. For assistance with this process, come to the Law Library Reference Office.
Contacting the Court or the Attorneys in a Case
If none of the options above provides you with what you need, a final option is to request a copy of a particular court document from the court in which the document was filed or from an attorney who was involved in the case. When requesting from a court, keep in mind that there is often a fee required, and it may take some time to receive the document which may be located in the court or government archives, particularly if it is from an older case . If you are trying to contact an attorney who worked on the case, keep in mind that some attorneys are more inclined to assist than others. Also, for older cases, the attorneys who were involved in the case may no longer be available or may not have ready access to the document you are looking for.
If you’re thinking about one of these last options, it is probably best to discuss with your editor whether it may be better to contact the author of the article you are cite-checking to ask him or her for a copy of the court document you need.