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How to Find Public Court Records

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Public court records are often available online, and if not online, they are available at the court house where the action was filed. Whether information is needed for property appraisals, legal actions or divorce proceedings, knowing where to find the paperwork is half the challenge.

Search District Court Files

The District Court in most states is the first court of record.

Justice courts, small claims courts or city courts may hear cases and may even have a jury, but don't make a recording of the action. Once the decision is handed down from these lower courts, any appeal is usually de novo or a completely new action.

The District Court retains records of district court cases in the jurisdiction, and these may be:

  1. divorces,
  2. torts or negligence actions,
  3. property disputes
  4. or criminal cases filed by the state.

If the name of the case and file number is available, anyone may go to the Clerk of the District Court, usually housed in the courthouse or the annex, and request the file or record. A clerk will bring a file for review but the file cannot be removed from the office.

Copies of pages may be available but most clerks will only allow their employees to make copies at your request and expense.

If you don't have the name of the file and file number, you can still locate the file if you have names of the parties. The District Court Clerk maintains several cross-indexing systems with Plaintiffs and Defendants.

Locate County Court Files

The County Clerk maintains files relating to:

  1. property transfers,
  2. deeds,
  3. deeds of trust,
  4. wills,
  5. business names
  6. and similar legal transactions that are not litigation or contentious, but that occur in the county.
  7. Some counties keep misdemeanor criminal records and traffic citations at the County Clerk's office, too.

A public records search usually involves the district court and the county court.

The county clerk's office may let you search or may have employees to assist you in locating the information you need. Older records are located in large tomes with copies of the documents; many courts have newer records available on the computer.

The Index is the book or several books that get you to the information you seek. For example, the Mortgagor-Mortgagee index gives a number for each land transaction purchased with a mortgage. The Deed index has the transfer document information.

Find Appellate Court Records

An appeal from District Court goes to the next higher court, and in most states, that is the Court of Appeal or Court of Appeals.

Once the case is argued on appeal and the decision is written, it is available online. The Legal Information Institute at Cornell University provides appellate and supreme court cases along with state statutes and other information, all sorted by state.

Other websites requiring subscriptions or fees provide appellate case decisions.

U. S. Supreme Court cases are available online for free.

Check Appraisal District Records

Many appraisal districts now have records online and the public can review ownership and appraisal values of homes in the area. This is helpful in locating comparables for contesting a property appraisal, or even in finding the name or address of a neighbor.

You can see the appraised value of your neighbor's property at the local appraisal district office as well. You'll need the street address, subdivision and lot or metes and bounds description to get started at the local office.

Public Records Not Available

A judge may seal a record for sensitive matters, particularly issues with minors, and the record is not available for public viewing.

Records may be checked out by the judge or an attorney in the case and may not be returned for weeks. Even if records are available, Social Security numbers and other private information may be redacted. This keeps private citizens or unscrupulous businesses from reading the information, and avoids identity theft for the litigant and the defendant.

Using the court system is not a private process, and lawsuits are matters of public record, available to the public, the news media and your neighbors.

Browse through and read our other articles here, if you're interested.