Accessing Federal Courts Assistance and Information

Federal case information is not as easy to locate as state case information. It might be simple to get an Eighth Circuit appellate opinion with Google Scholar, but it is trickier if you need a filed motion or complaint at the district court level.

The Federal Courthouse in St. Paul – For Minnesota case filings two public computers are available in the Warren Burger Courthouse in downtown St. Paul. Printing costs 10 cents per page. Printing with assistance from the clerk staff costs 50 cents/page. If a document is sealed it will say so, but if it is confidential, it will not show up in the first place. Records go back to “the early 1990’s.”

The clerk staff can help you get filed materials from any federal matter  filed or originating in Minnesota.  If it has progressed onto the Eighth Circuit appellate level, the documents are still accessible provided it started or became a Minnesota district case.  (You cannot access Eighth Circuit appellate documents that started in Iowa, for instance.)  The Minnesota clerk’s office can also send hardcopy materials of the Minnesota jurisdiction, after  receiving the 50 cents per page fee.  The Clerk’s office at the St. Paul division can be reached at 651-848-1100.

PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) – Federal court users are strongly encouraged to open an online PACER account, and this might be the most convenient and affordable option of all.  Registration is simple at the PACER homepage at https://www.pacer.gov/. It requires credit card information, or a verified address, for sending bills. Pacer will allow you to search and print district, bankruptcy, and appellate courts, and print filings from any of their districts.  By Judicial Conference policy, fees are waived for the quarter if your usage does not exceed $15.

The PACER service center can be reached at (800) 676-6856 Monday-Friday from 8AM to 6 PM CT, or you can email them at pacer@psc.uscourts.gov.  The PACER users’ manual is at https://www.pacer.gov/documents/pacermanual.pdf

Federal materials from districts beyond Minnesota – For these, you can either go the PACER route or contact the clerk’s office in that jurisdiction.

The Ramsey County Law Library offers free Westlaw, and the subscription provides much federal case law coverage.  The obvious drawback is that one must come to the library, which is only open during courthouse hours.  Federal case opinions are available through Westlaw beginning with 1790, although coverage varies by court.  Westlaw typically allows email delivery of documents, barring some exceptions.  The library offers print-outs at 15 cents per page, and the library has the hardcopy Federal Reporter series, which users can also photocopy for 15 cents per page.

Law Library assistance – The law library at the Warren Burger Federal Courthouse is closed to both pro se and attorney users.  Answers to many questions can be found by consulting the Court website, which offers forms, instructions, and helpful links.  The Court also offers their pro se manual at http://www.mnd.uscourts.gov/Pro-Se/Pro-Se-Civil-Guidebook.pdf, but does not sponsor or support any specific pro bono legal outreach.

The library at the Minneapolis federal courthouse is open to the public, but does not offer any hands-on guidance.  The staff will look up a federal case citation on PACER, but will not perform a case search.  “Open surfing” is not allowed on the library computers, but wi-fi is available if you bring your own device.

For questions about locating federal materials, please contact the Ramsey County Law Library at 651-266-8391.

Submitted by the Ramsey County Law Library.