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Researching Texas Law: Court Documents

Dockets

What is a docket?

According to the Yale Law Library,

"A docket is simply a record of the proceedings of a court case. Dockets vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction in type of information recorded, the detail of the information, and availability to the public. Some jurisdictions have free online docket systems while others require subscription to a database or even visiting the court in-person.

Docket research is generally used to find information about a particular case. Dockets contain information about the judge hearing the case, parties involved, attorneys involved, the events of a case, and more.

Dockets are generally more useful for researching trials. Because trials may last many years, and involve many events the dockets are important for locating information about cases.

Examples of documents that can be identified and (sometimes) located by retrieving a trial court docket include: motions, testimony transcripts, jury instructions and worksheets, judge rulings, expert witness names, and more."

Used properly, dockets are a very useful research tool. Most trial court-level cases are not published in reporters, so searching court dockets can help you find cases similar to yours, unpublished rulings that might be useful to your arguments, or information about litigants, opposing counsel, judges, or witnesses. Dockets can also help you follow the latest developments in cases of interest that are still open.

Dockets vs. documents

A "docket" is the term for the list of case documents, not the documents themselves. The resources discussed in the next box will tell you some of the ways you can find dockets, but keep in mind that even if you can locate the docket for a particular case, it may not give you access to the documents listed on that docket.

Finding Dockets

There's no good free source for most court dockets. They are much harder to find than opinions, and it gets more difficult the lower the court level and the older the case. Some basic information might be available on free case reporting services, but they usually offer only the docket list, which is of limited use unless you can find the documents.

Print sources:

The courts themselves are pretty much the only place to get official print copies of court dockets. There are businesses that will retrieve them for you for a fee, or you can go to the courthouse and order copies. This is often the only source, print or electronic, for dockets older than a few years.

Online sources:

  • Some court websites, especially federal and state appellate courts, give free public access to their dockets. The date range and document availability vary by court, and many require registration or proof of residence in the court's jurisdiction or otherwise restrict access. These sites can be useful if you need information about a specific case or cases from only one court. It's always worth checking the court's website to see if they offer docket access. A list of court websites can be found here.
  • LegalDockets.com has direct links to many federal, state & local court records databases.
  • iDocket.com has records from dozens of Texas county courts. Coverage varies by county - most just offer dockets, no documents. Advanced searching requires a paid subscription.

Fee-based Sources:

  • Bloomberg Law: The premiere court record database, especially for local courts! This is their specialty. It has great coverage and many documents available upon request. Non-law school subscribers may have to pay a separate fee for access to documents. Requires a Bloomberg Law subscription for access.
  • Westlaw & Lexis Advance: Both Westlaw and Lexis Advance have "Dockets" databases with some dockets available, mostly at the higher court level. Their coverage is very inconsistent and case documents usually aren't available and can't be requested. Westlaw links case documents to the docket, while Lexis Advance does not. These services require a Westlaw or Lexis Advance subscription for access.
  • PACER: PACER is the federal courts' official docket database. It can be difficult to use, but it's inexpensive, allows payment per transaction, and contains the full record of a case, including all documents filed. Often the best option if you need a federal docket and don't have access to Bloomberg Law, Westlaw or Lexis Advance.

Case Documents

What are case documents?

Case documents are the actual papers filed in a case - the complaints, motions, briefs, rulings, etc. that are generated during the judicial process. You can often locate these documents by finding the case's docket sheet, which contains references to everything that happens in a case. See the boxes above for tips on how to locate docket sheets.

Case documents are useful for several reasons:

  • They can be an excellent source of model documents to help you draft yours, especially if the cases are similar.
  • Most cases never reach appellate courts. Reading trial court documents from cases like yours, even if they were not appealed, will give you a more complete picture of the legal landscape and how your issue is routinely handled by attorneys and courts.
  • Reviewing the briefs or other documents filed by a prevailing party can be a good way to identify successful litigation strategies.
  • Looking at trends in a judge's rulings can show how a judge tends to rule when presented with different kinds of arguments.
  • When working in a specific area of law, you're likely going to see the same judges, attorneys, and experts repeatedly. Knowing who you might face, and how they handle cases, can help you tailor yours for the best chance of success.

Finding Case Documents

Case documents are sometimes available through court dockets, especially on Bloomberg Law, but a docket search will only help you if you already know the case name or you have a very specific search. If you're just trying to find all documents on particular topic or from a particular court, you're better off trying some of the options below.

Print sources:

  • In general, you will not find court documents in print unless you order them from the court yourself.
  • Some major cases have published histories that include case documents.
  • Supreme Court briefs are available in some depository libraries.
  • Law or court libraries often have print copies of selected case documents, usually briefs.

Free online sources:

  • Free online resources are very limited. Some courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court and the Texas Supreme Court, offer access to some court documents via docket searches on their websites, but these don't go back very far.
  • RECAP Archive - This site is dedicated to making federal court documents from PACER available for free. They don't have everything yet, but it's worth a look to see if the case you want is there.
  • LLRX List of Online Briefs - this was last updated in 2009, but many of the links are still good.

Fee-based sources:

  • PACER. See the "Finding Dockets" box on this page for a description of how PACER works.
  • Westlaw has two general court document databases, "Trial Court Documents" & "Trial Court Orders". It also has state-specific databases - for example, under the "Texas" tab, users can search "Texas Trial Court Orders", "Texas Briefs" and "Fifth Circuit Briefs". All of these databases are searchable by jurisdiction and topic. All of the documents that Westlaw has for a case are also listed in that case's "Filings" tab, so if you are trying to find documents related to a specific case, try looking up the case and checking that tab. A Westlaw subscription is required for access.
  • Lexis Advance: Lexis Advance offers access to court documents via its "Briefs, Pleadings & Motions" database. The database is searchable by jurisdiction and topic. A Lexis Advance subscription is required for access.
  • Bloomberg Law: Bloomberg offers extensive access to documents via its robust docket database, but it doesn't offer any other searchable database - there is no way to search within documents or look for documents on specific topics. A Bloomberg Law subscription is required for access.