Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Docket information on 260,000 New Jersey civil court filings now on-line



The New Jersey court system allows the public to search for civil cases, but only if either the docket number or a party’s name is known.  For example, if I already know that Kelly Morgan filed a “whistleblower” (i.e. a Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA)) case against the Pleasantville Board of Education, I can go the state courts’ web site, search on Morgan’s name and learn that the case’s docket number is ATL-L-006652-10 and other information about the case.  (For instructions on how to use this on-line search feature, see my blog entry here.)

But what if I didn’t know a party’s name or docket number?  Suppose, instead, that I wanted a list of all the “whistleblower” cases filed in a given county during a given year?   This type of information is not available from the court system unless someone pays the State hundreds of dollars in programming fees to have a custom report prepared. 

Fortunately, New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG), as a public service, recently paid the court system $710 to obtain two custom reports containing docket information on civil cases filed from January 1, 2002 to May 14, 2012.  After obtaining these electronic records, we combined them, removed the duplicates and converted them into a fixed-width text file that contains basic docket information on over 260,000 Superior Court Law Division Civil cases.  A zip file file containing the complete text files can be downloaded for free here. (Be patient, because the file is large.  Also read the “README.TXT” file first to understand which files contain which information.)

By using basic text editing and sorting software (I use EditPlus and CMSort) you can learn things like the number of whistleblower cases filed in Atlantic County in 2011 (there were 24 of them) and see that the cities of Atlantic City and Pleasantville and the Township of Galloway were named as defendants in some of them.  To learn more about any specific case, you can search the docket number on the State’s site.  For example, you’ll learn that Koltouris Konstadinos’ whistleblower case against Galloway (Docket ATL-L-002795-11) settled in mediation on April 3, 2012.  (You can also use Microsoft Excel, but I find working with text files much faster.)

While this information is very useful, it is not complete. Unfortunately, the court system periodically “archives” some of its cases, and when a case is archived, it is removed from the reports that we paid $710 for.  In order to get data from the archived cases, we would need to purchase a “PAC0502” report for an additional $1,325.  The PAC0502 report, while prohibitively expensive, would also be difficult to manipulate into useable data.  According to a March 14, 2012 e-mail from Elisabeth Ann Strom, Esq., Chief of the Superior Court Clerk’s Office (Voice: 609-292-5293 - e-mail):

The [PAC0502] report is not available for paper copies due to its immense size (one year’s worth could be at least one million pages),  nor can this report be sorted by date range or docket order.  This report is sorted by archive date.  Also, this report contains all different types of docket cases intermingled together.   In addition, because this database is for archived cases, it could contain multiple copies of the same case if it had been reopened, closed and archived again within the same year.  I have been also informed that this report is only an electronic docket, containing only enough data in the archive database to re-establish a case if necessary.  It does not contain the entire caseload of information for each case.

So, in sum, the file that we’ve provided is a nearly complete listing for recent cases (e.g. only 59 of the 93,759 cases filed in 2011 have been archived) but as the cases get older, there is a greater chance of them being archived and not available in the file we’ve provided.

In conclusion, we hope that this information will help journalists and the general public to better identify and track court cases that are of interest.  We also believe that NJFOG’s experience in gathering this information illustrates how antiquated, expensive and user-unfriendly New Jersey’s civil case database is.  Compare New Jersey’s system to the federal court’s Pacer system. While it has its flaws, the Pacer system allows account holders to search court records in a variety of ways and to actually download PDF versions of court filings (for a modest cost per page). 

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