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Online Access to Some Files Opens at D.C. Court of Appeals

Fritz Mulhauser | August 3, 2022

Court briefs and orders in appeals of some civil cases are now available online, according to an announcement from the D.C. Court of Appeals posted July 29.

The brief announcement gave no details such as how to use the new feature. (TM; DR: hints for users: As typical with court records online, access is to case files one at a time (no information is provided about bulk downloads), and then entire documents within the case. That is, you can’t search for a text within one document or many. So a user locates a case by lower court or Court of Appeals case number or party name. The court “docket” or chronological record of case events is displayed, including all documents from whatever source. Some document entries have an icon (a page with corner turned down) in the farthest right-hand column of the docket headed “PDF” – indicating an available record. A user mouses over the icon and a box pops up to the left showing the document name in red. Clicking on that should bring up the document as a PDF file.)

Access is free and with no registration required.

Details may change; the court notice is still captioned, “pilot project.”  

The court is the “supreme court” for the District. It handles challenges to civil and criminal decisions of the Superior Court. It also hears attorney discipline matters and appeals from decisions of the Office of Administrative Hearings on cases against D.C. agencies. It issues about 1,500 rulings a year.

Paper case files have always been available (unless sealed by a judge) at the courthouse, as the common law and Constitution require; adding online access has been under consideration for years. Planning accelerated in 2021 after dozens of court users and advocates (including the Open Government Coalition) responded positively to the court’s invitation to comment on the idea.

Most divisions of the D.C. Superior Court opened online access to case records five years ago. The United States Supreme Court filings are available free to all online. A much-criticized paywall sheltering records of all other federal courts in the PACER system is under court and congressional scrutiny. State courts elsewhere have moved from paper to digital record systems using case management technology that can readily add public access, according to a 2017 report on a national survey done to assist initial planning at the D.C. Court of Appeals by the D.C.-based Council for Court Excellence.

The new access will only be to case materials filed since August 1, 2021. Wider access to records of past cases raises thorny issues because of potential misuse of personal information involved–now sheltered by sheer inaccessibility. Anticipating online access, the Court of Appeals changed its rules a year ago, putting filers on notice to keep personal details out of their court papers that will be widely available. Court staff told the Coalition that delay in the new online access was caused in part by extensive review of filings under the new rules to check for compliance. An amended notice about filing was also issued July 29.

Types of cases included, for now, are some but not all of those with “CV” case numbers: Civil I, Collections, Contracts, General Civil, Landlord and Tenant, Liens, Malpractice, Merit Personnel, Other Civil, Property, Real Property, Torts, and Vehicle cases.

The Coalition welcomes the expanded access and congratulates the Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, Clerk Julio Castillo, and staff for the behind-the-scenes efforts needed, especially during the last two years of unusual stress in all operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the 21st century, online access helps realize what the court itself said decades ago: “public scrutiny can serve to inform the public about the true nature of judicial proceedings, and public knowledge of the courts is essential to democratic government because it is essential to rational criticism and reform of the justice system.” Mokhiber v. Davis, 537 A.2d 1100, 1110 (D.C. 1988).