Accessing NJ & Federal courts and court records


 

How do I get into a New Jersey trial or other court proceeding?

Under ordinary circumstances, you don’t need to do anything other than show up. There is a First Amendment right to attend criminal trials including preliminary hearings and jury selection. Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 580(1980). There is also a presumption of public trials under New Jersey court rules. N.J. Ct. R. 1:2-1. This includes civil and family court proceedings.[1]

However, the court may deny access if there is an overriding interest in keeping the trial closed. NJ courts have closed to observers, for example, in order to protect a jury from potential media influence and to shield the identity of a domestic violence victim.[2]  Grand Jury proceedings are always closed.[3] All juvenile proceedings are presumptively closed, but you can ask the judge for permission to sit in on them, provided you don’t reveal the juvenile’s name.[4]

If you have bona fide press credentials, you can also bring cameras and other recording devices into New Jersey courtrooms.[1]

Court Access Permitted

Court Access Denied

Two newspapers appealed the denial of press access to post-verdict voir dire (to investigate the possibility of juror misconduct). The Appellate Court held that concern about media influence on juror testimony “did not constitute an overriding government interest” sufficient to deny access. Barber v. Shop-Rite of Englewood & Associates, Inc., 393 N.J. Super. 292 (App.Div. 2007).

A domestic violence victim sought to have a closed proceeding for a name change to protect herself from her abuser, who had violated a restraining order.  The Appellate Court held that it would be “an injustice” to allow press access. In re E.F.G., 398 N.J. Super. 539 (App.Div. 2008).

Parents, concerned about allegations brought against them in their daughter’s divorce, moved to have parts of the proceedings closed to the public. The Chancery Court held that potential embarrassment was an insufficient reason for closure, especially considering the fact that they were not from New Jersey, making it unlikely that people they knew would be at the trial. Smith v. Smith, 379 N.J. Super. 447 (Ch.Div. 2004).

 

 


 

What do I do if the New Jersey proceeding is closed?

If you are in the courtroom when a judge closes the proceeding, you can ask to speak and object on the record.[1] If you find out about the closure after the fact, you can ask the clerk’s office for an explanation and file a challenge to the closure.


 

How do I access New Jersey court records?

You submit a Records Request Form to the local courthouse where the proceeding is taking place, or did take place in the past.  If the proceeding is over and archived, you submit the Records Request Form to the Superior Clerks Office in Trenton, by email at SCCOMailbox@judiciary.state.nj.us or by mail at: P.O. Box 971, Trenton, NJ 08625 – 0971.

There is a fee for copying and authenticating the records.[1]

Alternatively, some records are available online through the New Jersey Courts website. These include arrest records, motions filed with the court, and sentencing.[2]


 

Which New Jersey records are available?

Accessible court records include “pleadings, motions, briefs and their respective attachments, evidentiary exhibits, indices, calendars, and dockets,” as well as orders, judgments, and opinions relating to judicial proceedings, official transcripts or recordings thereof, and any information in electronic case management systems prepared by the court in connection with a judicial proceeding.[1]


 

When are New Jersey records unavailable?

Although there is a presumption of open records, there is a long list of statutory exceptions. These include:

  • Internal records, including deliberative records and notes and draft opinions of judges or judiciary staff members not otherwise required by statute to be included on the record;
  • Discovery materials provided to the Criminal Division Manager's office by the prosecutor pursuant to R. 3:9-1 and R. 3:13-3;
  • Writs to produce prisoners pending execution of the writ;
  • Sealed indictments;
  • Records relating to grand jury proceedings;
  • Records relating to participants in drug court programs and programs approved for Pre-trial Intervention, and reports made for a court or prosecuting attorney pertaining to persons enrolled in or applications for enrollment in such programs, but not the fact of enrollment and the enrollment conditions imposed by the court;
  • Victim statements unless placed on the record at a public proceeding;
  • Expunged records;
  • Reports of the Diagnostic Center;
  • Records relating to child victims of sexual assault or abuse;
  • Search warrants and the affidavit or testimony upon which a warrant is based;
  • Documents, records and transcripts related to proceedings and hearings required by the Supreme Court pursuant to Doe v. Poritz, 142 N.J. 1, 39 (1995), or subsequent orders of the Court;
  • Names and addresses of victims or alleged victims of domestic violence or sexual offenses;
  • Family Case Information Statements and Financial Statements in Summary Support Actions, including all attachments;
  • Confidential Litigant Information Sheets;
  • Medical, psychiatric, psychological, and alcohol and drug dependency records, reports, and evaluations in matters related to child support, child custody, or parenting time determinations;
  • Juvenile delinquency records and reports;
  • Records of Juvenile Conference Committees;
  • Expunged juvenile records;
  • Sealed juvenile records;
  • Domestic violence records and reports;
  • Names and addresses of victims or alleged victims of domestic violence or sexual offenses;
  • Records relating to child victims of sexual assault or abuse;
  • Records relating to Division of Child Protection and Permanency proceedings;
  • Child custody evaluations, reports, and records;
  • Paternity records and reports, except for the final judgments or birth certificates;
  • Records and reports relating to child placement matters;
  • Adoption records and reports;
  • Records of hearings on the welfare or status of a child;
  • Records pertaining to mediation sessions and complementary dispute resolution proceedings, but not the fact that mediation has occurred;
  • Records and transcripts of civil commitment proceedings, civil commitment expungement petitions and proceedings, and expunged civil commitment records;
  • Police investigative reports, unless admitted into evidence or submitted to the court in support of a motion, brief, or other pleading;
  • Records that are impounded, sealed, or subject to a protective order;
  • Criminal, Family, Municipal and Probation Division records pertaining to any investigations and reports made by court staff or pursuant to court order for a court or pertaining to persons on probation;
  • Family, Finance and Probation Division records containing information pertaining to persons receiving or ordered to pay child support, including the child(ren); custodial parents; non-custodial parents; legal guardians; putative fathers; family members and any other individuals for whom information may be collected and retained by the court in connection with child support cases subject to Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 651 et seq. and applicable state and federal statutes, but not the complaint or orders in such cases;
  • Records maintained by the Judiciary that contain identifying information about a person who has or is suspected of having AIDS or HIV infection;
  • Records of appeals from the Division of Developmental Disabilities;
  • Written requests by a crime victim, or if such a person is deceased or incapacitated, a member of that person's immediate family, for a record to which the victim is entitled.

 

What if the New Jersey records have been sealed?

The State can overcome the presumption of open records if society’s interest in secrecy is greater than the need to access the records.[1] The State must demonstrate the need for secrecy with specificity as to each document.[2] If a trial court makes a determination that court records should be sealed, you will have to bring a lawsuit to have them unsealed, claiming that the need for access is greater than the need for secrecy. There are few recorded cases, and as of now they all go in the plaintiff’s favor.

Records Accessible

A contractual interest in confidentiality (between employer and employee in bribery and fraud suit) was insufficient to justify sealing records. Lederman v. Prudential Life Ins. Co. of America, Inc., 385 N.J. Super. 307 (App.Div. 2006).

The trial court erred in sealing a record to prevent an abusive father from learning that child and mother had settled a personal injury suit. Verni ex rel. Burstein v. Lanzaro, 404 N.J. Super. 16 (App.Div. 2008).

A Township failed in its effort to get the court to seal internal affairs documents attached to a summary judgment motion. The redaction of personal information was enough. Spinks v. Township of Clinton, 402 N.J. Super. 454 (App.Div. 2008).


 

How do I access Federal court proceedings?

You also have a right to attend federal civil and criminal court proceedings.[1] This applies to most court proceedings, not just trials.[2] However, federal grand juries are closed to the public.[3] The court may also choose to close a proceeding to protect the jury pool from prejudice, out of respect for nation security concerns, or to protect juveniles, among other reasons.[4]  A federal judge has the discretion, but not the obligation, to close a juvenile proceeding, according to the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act, 18 USC§§ 5031-42 as interpreted by  United States v. A.D., 28 F.3d 1353 (3d Cir. Pa. 1994).


 

What do I do if the Federal proceeding is closed?

If a federal court closes a proceeding, the closure must be as narrow as possible while still protecting the interests of the moving party.[1] The court must also consider alternatives to closure. After the proceeding has been closed, you can challenge it.

Federal proceeding open

Federal proceeding closed

The 3rd Circuit overturned an order by a court to ensure juror anonymity during voir dire for a criminal trial for a public figure. The First Amendment right to the names of trial jurors and prospective jurors outweighed juror privacy interests. United States v. Wecht, 537 F.3d 222 (3d Cir. Pa. 2008).

Deportation hearings, although presumptively open, can be closed in the face of national security concerns. N. Jersey Media Group v. Ashcroft, 308 F.3d 198 (3d Cir. N.J. 2002).


 

How do I access Federal court records?

The federal judiciary provides an online service called PACER for court documents. The federal district, appellate, and bankruptcy courts make their documents available through this site.  To access the documents, you need to make an account, and there is a fee of $0.10 per page, capped at $3.00 per record. The records become available on PACER as soon as they are electronically filed with the court. You can expect to find things such as:

  • The names of all the parties and participants, including judges, attorneys, and trustees;
  • A compilation of case-related information, such as cause of action, nature of suit, and dollar demand;
  • The docket listing the case events by date;
  • A claims registry;
  • A listing of new cases each day;
  • Appellate court opinions;
  • Judgments or case status;
  • Types of documents filed for certain cases;
  • Images of documents.[1]

 

What if the Federal records have been sealed?

You can challenge an order sealing records.

Records Sealed

Records Accessible

Briefs and a hearing relating to a grand jury were closely enough connected to the grand jury proceeding under USCS Fed Rules Crim Proc R 6(e) to be closed to the public. United States v. Smith, 123 F.3d 140 (3d Cir. N.J. 1997).

Documents relating to a criminal defendant’s conviction on charges from KKK activity ordered unsealed on First Amendment grounds. U.S. v. Porter, 988 F. Supp. 519 (M.D. Penn. 1997).

 

 

 

Updated September 2015