Preliminary Investigation: Searching state and local court systems

In the discovery of secret things and in the investigation of hidden causes, stronger reasons are obtained from sure experiments and demonstrated arguments than from probable conjectures and the opinions of philosophical speculators of the common sort. – William Gilbert, De Magnete

Your case—and any cases you might dig up involving your prospective defendant (hereinafter “PD”)—may not be federal. You’ll need to get into your state and local court system, too.

It took me a couple of years working for lawyers to grasp the pyramid structure of the New York State court system. There’s no point in describing it here, especially since, for these investigative purposes, you may not be searching the New York State court system. What you will be searching is court records in states your PD lived in, worked in, or was born in.

So you’ll need the state site address for what, in New York at least, is called the Unified Court System. From this site——you can search through every damn court in the state.

Each state court system may have a somewhat different site address. Ohio, for instance, is Get the full address by googling “state court” + “[name of state]”. But you knew that.

Let’s stick to my home state, with the sense that each state’s court system will be sort of similar. Each will have a web site but each will be organized and loaded differently.

The wealth of information on the New York state court database is amazing. And, amazingly, is written for us laymen. You can search for millions of items, some of which will be useful later (if you can remember where you saw them, a problem even I have).

Once you’re on the state system’s home page and have further selected a county in which you want to search, find “Case Information.” In New York State you’ll see two possible links—Notice to the Bar & Rules and Supreme Court Records On-Line Library (“SCROLL”). Click on SCROLL; up comes a captcha panel asking you to copy some letters and/or numbers into a blank box. Do so. Click “submit.”

Now you’re in the database. There are several search possibilities. The ones you want are “Plaintiff” and “Defendant.” Put your PD’s name in (last name, then first name), and search. If you don’t get anything immediately, try just the last name. And try both “Plaintiff” and “Defendant” sections. If it’s a corporation or company, try whatever variety of names you can think up.

You’ll have to experiment with other state systems to see how much you can get into but since our courts and records are—or should be—open to the public, you should, at the least, be able to feed in the name of the person or company you’re searching for.

And do play around in local courts which might be called “municipal,” or “city.” Leave no court unturned!

Again, if you find a case in which your PD is named, read through the complaint. If you get excited, print it out. And while you’re at it, if your PD has a professional degree, search out his status in the state where he’s presumably licensed to practice.

Once while searching for a financial adviser I’d met and immediately distrusted and disliked, I’d searched the courts for him and found a contentious divorce. It wasn’t what I was looking for—fraud, for example—but it satisfied my need to know this guy wasn’t universally admired. Since the guy was also a lawyer, I checked his registration, which was in an upstate court. So I searched that court, too. (Then I went further and delved into the half-ass “professional association” these characters called “financial advisors” invented for themselves. That’s where I found juice.)

And if the state you’re searching in divides civil from criminal cases, hey, search the criminal cases, too. Who knows what you’ll find?


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