Docket Research for Journalism Students 2018

1. Before starting case law and docket research

I often find that before researching cases and dockets, some understanding of how to conduct legal research is necessary.

An excellent starting point is Neacsu’s Introduction to US Law and Legal Research, available in print (2005), online (2011), and as a wiki.

Also, FindLaw has a free-of charge portal in New York State legal research.

2. Deciphering abbreviations

I also find it useful to understand the structure of legal citations. When we read about cases, we often need to go beyond the secondary level information and find the judge’s opinion, considered a primary legal source. For instance, on 12/22/2017,  Josefa Velasquez wrote in the New York Law Journal:

1. Facebook Loses Search Warrant Case- In re: 381 Search Warrants directed to Facebook Inc., New York State Court of Appeals No. 16

In April, the state’s highest court ruled 5-1 in a widely watched case that the court lacked the legal jurisdiction to challenge the Manhattan district attorney’s bulk search warrants for content held by 381 Facebook users. The majority decision, written by Associate Judge Leslie Stein, upheld lower court rulings that Facebook didn’t have the right to ask a higher court to quash search warrants obtained in a criminal investigation by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. Prosecutors in July 2013 had obtained the warrants ordering Facebook to turn over information belonging to individuals, including police officers and firefighters, suspected of fraudulently receiving Social Security benefits.

Facebook had argued that the warrants by Vance’s office were too broad. The California-based social media company also had argued that the Manhattan DA went too far by prohibiting Facebook from telling users about the search warrants. It is up to the targets of the warrants, not third parties—such as Facebook—to challenge warrants, Stein wrote in the decision.  Judge Rowan Wilson dissented, describing the warrants as “authorizing the seizure of private information en masse” and leaving Facebook with no recourse.

The ruling was a defeat for advocates for internet privacy, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union, which filed amicus curiae briefs in support of Facebook. Other internet-based companies, including Kickstarter and Foursquare, had also filed briefs in support of Facebook.

But Velasquez never cited nor provided a link to the case: Matter of 381 Search Warrants Directed to Facebook, Inc., 29 N.Y.3d 231, 78 N.E.3d 141, 55 N.Y.S.3d 696 (NY, 2017), forcing her readers to rely on her editorialized presentation.

With my help, I hope you won’t do that!

A case law has a three-part citation: a number, a conceptual abbreviation, and another number, or number, abbrev, number. The first number identifies the volume number, the abbreviation identifies the case law repository (report or reporter), and the last number identifies the page where the decision starts. 

Here are abbreviations of New York case law repositories (reports, or reporters):

New York:

  • “N.E.”, “N.E.2d” – North Eastern Reporter
  • “N.Y.”, N.Y.2d” – New York Reports
  • “N.Y.S.”, “N.Y.S.2d” – West’s New York Supplement
  • “A.D.”, “A.D.2d”, “A.D.3d” – New York’s Appellate Division Reports
  • “N.Y.Sup.Ct.” – New York Supreme Court Reports

For more on legal abbreviations, go to Case Law Research: Abbreviations & Acronyms!

Now let’t talk about the structure of the court system and how it impacts case law research.

  • First, each court level has its own case law repository.
  • Second, no case law repository is meaningfully organized. Also, case law publication is connected directly to the stare decisis value of the case: the lower the court handing out the decision, the lower the likelihood to find that case officially reported in a reporter.
  • Thirdly, you need a print digest or pre-existing familiarity with legal analysis, and legal terminology, to engage in efficient legal research.
  • Lastly, you should know how to find the subsequent history of a case (how it traveled through the appellate system) to understand its outcome.

2. Deciphering the NYS court structure 

Using one of Georgetown’s great research guide, let’s start with the two charts provided by the New York State Unified Court System, the New York judicial system has three levels:

The structure of the courts and appeal procedures have not changed since the last judiciary amendment of 1962. Although there have been proposals to simplify the court system in 1986 and again in 2002, changes are still not on the horizon. The proposed court reorganization of 2002 is quite extensive and would require an amendment of the New York Constitution.

Court of Appeals

“The Court of Appeals, New York State’s highest court, is composed of a Chief Judge and six Associate Judges, each appointed to a 14-year term. New York’s highest appellate court was established to articulate statewide principles of law in the context of deciding particular lawsuits. The Court thus generally focuses on broad issues of law as distinguished from individual factual disputes. There is no jurisdictional limitation based upon the amount of money at stake in a case or the status or rank of the parties.” (As described on the Court of Appeals website.) The Court of Appeals also promulgates rules of the court; links to the full text of rules are available on its home page.

Appellate Divisions of the Supreme Court

“There are four Appellate Divisions of the Supreme Court, one in each of the State’s four Judicial Departments (geographical divisions). These Courts resolve appeals from judgments or orders of the superior courts of original jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases, and review civil appeals taken from the Appellate Terms and the County Courts acting as appellate courts.” (As described on the New York State Unified Court System website.) New York County and Bronx belong to the First Judicial Department, while Kings, Queens, and Richmond Counties belong to the Second Judicial Department.

Trial Courts

“The Supreme Court is the trial court of unlimited original jurisdiction; but generally hears cases that are outside the jurisdiction of other trial courts of more limited jurisdiction.

“The County Court is established in each county outside New York City. It is authorized to handle the prosecution of all crimes committed within the County. The County Court also has limited jurisdiction in civil cases involving amounts up to $25,000.

“City Courts outside New York City exist in 61 cities and have criminal jurisdiction over misdemeanors and lesser offenses, and civil jurisdiction over claims of up to $15,000. Some City Courts have separate parts to handle Small claims (up to $5,000), or housing matters. City Court judges act as arraigning magistrates and conduct preliminary hearings in felony cases.

“District Courts exist in Nassau Count and in the five western towns of Suffolk County. District Courts have criminal jurisdiction over misdemeanors and lesser offenses, and also conduct arraignments in felony cases. They have civil jurisdiction over claims of up to $15,000 and small claims matters not in excess of $5,000.

“Town and Village Courts have criminal jurisdiction over violations and misdemeanors, and civil jurisdiction over claims of up to $3,000. As magistrates, Town and Village Court justices hold arraignments and preliminary hearings for those charged with more serious crimes. Traffic infractions also are heard in these courts.” (As described in the New York State Unified Court website.)

3. Researching NYS Cases and Dockets: Research Portal

Official Reporters

  • New York Reports includes cases decided in the Court of Appeals of the state of New York from 1847. 1st series (N.Y.Rep.): 1847-1955; 2nd series (N.Y.Rep.2d): 1956-2003; 3rd series (N.Y.Rep.3d) 2003-present.
  • Appellate Division Reports includes cases decided in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, State of New York from 1896. 1st series (A.D.): 1896-1955; 2d series (A.D.2d): 1956-2003; 3d series (A.D.3d): 2004-present.
  • Miscellaneous Reports includes cases decided in courts of the State of New York other than the Court of Appeals and the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court from 1893. 1st series (Misc.Rep.): 1893-1955; 2nd series (Misc.Rep.2d): 1956-2003; and 3rd series (Misc.Rep.3d): 2004-present.

Unofficial Reporters (in print and online)

  • West’s New York Supplement includes cases argued and determined in the Court of Appeals, Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, as well as the Supreme Court and other courts. 1st series (N.Y.S.): 1888-1938, 2nd series (N.Y.S.2d): 1938-2015, 3rd Series (N.Y.S.3d): 2015-present.
  • North Eastern Reporter (also known as West’s North Eastern Reporter) includes cases argued and determined in the courts of Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York (Court of Appeals only), and Ohio. The original Northeastern Reporter (N.E.) covers 1885-1936. 2nd series (N.E.2d): 1936-present.
  • New York Law Journal publishes some unpublished opinions. Both Nexis UNI and Factiva should carry them.
  • FindLaw 

Where to Find New York Court of Appeals Decisions

Where to find New York Appellate Division Decisions 

Where to Find New York Trial-Level Court Decisions 

How to Find Cases on a Topic 

  • New York Digest, (for most current, use Topics and Key Number headnotes system on Westlaw Campus for searching). “[C]ontains all headnotes, classified according to West’s Key Number System, for New York state and federal court decisions [from 1961 to date (3d Series and 4th Series)]. The topics are listed in alphabetical order. The Key Numbers within those topics are listed in numerical order. Each topic begins with scope notes about subjects included and subjects excluded and covered by other topics.” Each volume is supplemented by a pocket part and the full set is also supplemented by interim pamphlets. Includes Descriptive Word Index, Words and Phrases, and Table of Cases which provides citations, subsequent case history, and Key Numbers classifying each point of law.

Where to Find Information about Pending Cases in New York State Courts

  • Let’s start with the story of the case: All cases start with a complaint, and through discovery, and motion practice cases end either with a settlement (civil cases) or with a decision (civil cases) or verdict (criminal cases). During the motion practice life of a case, you may want to read the paper work produced by each party.
  • For a more specific discussion of preparing and researching appellate briefs in New York, you may find it useful to go to :
  • Bloomberg Law. Open the Dockets & Litigation tab. Choose to search a particular New York state court or all New York state courts by typing “New York” into the Courts search box and choosing the relevant courts. Then use a terms and connectors search in the keywords search box. – Available from the stand alone computer located in the Reference Office in the Law School Library (3rd floor in the Jerome Green Building)
  • WebCivil Supreme, New York State Unified Court System. Provides access to information about open court cases for any Civil Supreme Court case in 62 Counties, such as name of plaintiff, defendant, judge, attorney, and law firm; appearance date and type of action; decisions are available for some cases. Searchable by firm or attorney name, index number, plaintiff, and defendant. (1998 – present)
  • WebCivil Local, New York State Unified Court System. WebCivil Local contains cases from all the local Civil Courts in New York State (61 City Courts, the District Courts in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, and the New York City Civil Courts). You may search for cases by Index Number, Party Name, Attorney/Firm Name or Judge, and produce calendars for a specific Attorney/Firm or by Judge or Part. Includes information on Landlord-Tenant cases.
  • New York State Courts E-Filing (NYCSEF), New York State Unified Court System. Provides access to legal papers (PDF) in civil lawsuits filed electronically, except for those sealed by court order. Searchable by claim/index number, party name, or attorney name. The system currently accepts electronic filing of commercial, tort and tax certiorari cases in the Supreme Court in Albany, Bronx, Erie, Essex, Kings, Monroe, Nassau, New York, Niagara, Onodaga, Queens, Richmond, Suffolk, Sullivan and Westchester Counties. (2003 – present)
  • WebCrims, New York State Unified Court System. “[E]nables you to view pending criminal cases in local and superior courts in 13 counties and summons cases for all of New York City. You may search for cases by Case Number or Party Name and produce calendars by County and Part or Judge.” Also displays universal summons case information for the five counties of New York City. You can search by docket number or the name of defendant. (only cases with future court dates);
  • If all this fails, try these addresses:
  • N.Y. Appellate Division records and briefs.  They are available locally as follows:
    • Westchester County Supreme Court Law Library- ONLY 2d Department Briefs & Records
      111 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd 9th Floor
      White Plains, NY 10601
      (914) 824-5660
      (open to the public)
    • Duchess County Supreme Court Law Library- ONLY 4th Department Briefs & Records
      Supreme Court Law Library
      50 Market Street
      Poughkeepsie, NY 12601
      (845) 486-2215
      (open to the public)
    • Kings County Supreme Court Law Library- all Department Briefs and Records
      3rd Floor
      360 Adams Street
      Brooklyn, NY 11201
      (347) 296-1144
      (open to the public)
    • New York County Lawyers Association Library – all Department briefs and records – see here
      14 Vesey St.
      New York, NY 10007
      212-267-6646, ext. 205
      (provides fee-based research services)
    • New York City Bar Association – chart available here
      42 W. 44th St.
      New York, NY 10036
      212-382-6666
      (provides fee-based research services)
    • NYLI Records and Briefs Research Guide
      120 Broadway
      Suite 932
      New York, New York 10271-0043
      Phone (212) 732-8720
      Fax (212) 406-1204
      E-mail: library@nyli.org

      • The NYLI collection includes records and briefs for the following courts:
        U.S. Supreme Court
        U.S. Court of Appeals, 2d Circuit
        New York Court of Appeals
        New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division (all departments)
  • New York State Library has records and briefs available. Information about NYSL’s holdings and how to obtain records and briefs is available here.

Where to find archival material:

Sometimes you may need to know how to find historical court records.As mentioned in the New York State Archival Research Guide: Court Records, the Archives hold many records of New York’s higher trial and appeals courts prior to 1847, and of appeals courts from 1847 to the present. Of special interest to genealogists are records of the Court of Chancery (1704-1847) and the Court of Probates (1778-1823) and its colonial predecessor, the Prerogative Court (1686-1783). These records are described in Records Relating to Criminal Trials, Appeals, and Pardons.

Probate Records

The Surrogate’s Court, established in each county in 1787, has custody of almost all probate records created since that date. Many Surrogate’s Court records have been microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah. (The microfilm is loaned to Mormon family history centers worldwide.)

The State Archives holds the records and filed documents of the Court of Probates, the predecessor of the Surrogate’s Courts. Holdings include Probated Wills (J0038)Inventories and Accounts (J0301), and Administration Papers (J0033). The wills relate to estates in all parts of New York; the inventories and administration papers relate mostly to estates in the Hudson and Mohawk valleys. Most of the documents in these series pre- date 1787; all pre-date 1823. The Archives has microfilmed part of series J0038 and all of J0301 and J0033. The published indexes to these records were not filmed. The Archives also holds recorded wills for New York County (Manhattan) through 1879 (series J0043). Archives staff will search probate records only if name of decedent and date of death are provided.

For further information on probate records, where to find them, and indexes to them, consult our Probate Pathfinder or NYS Archives Information Leaflet #3 Probate Records.

Chancery Records

Chancery jurisdiction included guardianship for the property of widows and orphans; mortgage foreclosure; real property partition; and divorce (1787- 1847 only). All surviving Chancery Decrees and Papers Before 1800 (J0065) are available on microfilm. Many pre-1800 Chancery case documents were not preserved; and the existing indexes to pre-1800 cases are incomplete. Various series of Chancery Minutes covering the period 1781-1847(series J0048J0050J0059J0081) are available on microfilm, as are the Enrolled Decrees After 1800 (J0063) and accompanying index to complainants. The files of Chancery cases that did not result in a final decree, and the files of cases handled in the seven upstate Chancery circuits between 1823 and 1847, are not on microfilm. Access to Chancery records can be difficult. Archives staff will search the records only if a specific case citation (names of parties and date of case) is provided. Other Chancery records, mostly relating to downstate New York, are at the New York County Clerk’s Office, 31 Chambers Street, New York, NY 10007. Data from Chancery records is abstracted in Kenneth Scott, Records of the Chancery Court, Province and State of New York, Guardianships, 1691-1815 (New York: n.d.).

4. Miscellaneous: NYS Court Rules