Researching US federal court documents

Resource type: this resource contains a tutorial or tutorial notes.
This is a tutorial on how to use the RECAP system created by the Free Law Project to access the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) service to obtain United States federal court documents.
This article uses dates in ISO 8601 format except in direct quotes.

By US law, documents filed in US federal courts are in the public domain. Such documents are offered by US federal courts via a service called PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) at 10 cents per page.[1] Alternatively, one can search for those documents via the "RECAP" project ("PACER" spelled backwards), created by the Free Law Project and get for free any document on PACER that someone else has purchased using RECAP. We describe here how to do that.

Hachette v. Internet Archive

Figure 1. Ascending-Descending icon

Suppose we want court documents relating to "Hachette v. Internet Archive". We start by going to,[2] then clicking on "RECAP archive".[3] Then search for "Hachette v. Internet Archive". When we did this on 2023-04-15, we got "41 Cases — 751 Docket Entries", the first of which was "Hachette Book Group, Inc. v. Internet Archive (S.D.N.Y. 2020)". This produced a list of "DOCKET ENTRIES", starting with Docket Number 1 filed 2020-06-01.

The right end of the table header includes an "ascending / descending" icon, as in the accompanying Figure 1. The default is "ascending", i.e., starting with Docket Number 1. Click the "descending" icon at the right hand end of the table header to display the most recent Docket document first.

Figure 2. Court Listener-RECAP documents re. Hachette v. Internet Archive 2023-04-15

Figure 2 shows a list of the most recent 6 of the 194 documents documented on Court Listener-RECAP on 2023-04-15 re. Hachette v. Internet Archive. The most recent five have already been purchased via RECAP, so anyone can get them by clicking, "Download PDF". The sixth has not (yet) been purchased via RECAP, and a viewer is invited to "Buy on PACER". Typically, when one clicks on "Buy on PACER", one is invited to log into PACER and buy the document. When I did this on 2023-04-15, however, I got a comment saying, "This is a restricted government website for official PACER use only." Then I noticed that the document in question was, "TRANSCRIPT of Proceedings re: HEARING held on 3/20/2023 ... Transcript may be viewed at the court public terminal or purchased through the Court Reporter/Transcriber before the deadline for Release of Transcript Restriction. After that date it may be obtained through PACER. Redaction Request due 4/18/2023. Redacted Transcript Deadline set for 4/28/2023. Release of Transcript Restriction set for 6/26/2023..(McGuirk, Kelly) (Entered: 03/28/2023)". Evidently, part or all of at least some documents on PACER can be withheld or redacted at least temporarily, though such restrictions may not apply to someone who requests the document(s) in person at the appropriate court office.

I'm particularly interested in research by economists at Northeastern and the University of Copenhagen mentioned in comments by Lila Bailey, Policy Counsel at the Internet Archive,[4] at a press conference organized by the Internet Archive shortly before the oral arguments in this case, 2023-03-20.[5] Conveniently, there's a box at the top left corner of Figure 2 that says, "Search this c" (trimmed from "Search this docket"). Searching for "Northeastern" there trimmed the results to "1 Case — 9 Docket Entries". Four of those 9 entries mentioned "Northeastern"; the other 5 displayed only "ne". I clicked on each of the 4 mentioning Northeastern and got an option to "Download PDF", because someone else had already purchased a copy from PACER via RECAP. One was by Imke C. Reimers, an Associate Professor of Economics at Northeastern,[6] another was a "McNamara Declaration" discussing an "Internet Archive Open Libraries Proposal", a third was "Wikipedia Citations to Books Available to Borrow from the Internet Archive via CDL", and the fourth was a "Supplemental Expert Report of Prof. Ian Foster" of the University of Chicago.[7]

I also asked to ""Search this docket" for "Copenhagen". That identified two more documents labeled, "Exhibit 2 - Excerpts, Jorgensen Expert Rpt. — Document #108, Attachment #2 (22 pages)"[8] and "Exhibit 1 - Excerpts, Jorgensen Expert Rpt. — Document #108, Attachment #1 (48 pages)",[9] respectively. After clicking on each, I could then click on "Download PDF", which I did. Some of the information in these documents was redacted (covered in black), but the information there was still quite useful for understanding better the issues in that suit.

We next discuss how to sign up for email alerts for updates on RECAP search queries. This is followed by discussion of a couple of other examples.

Email alerts


You can have a query run repeatedly and send you an email if anything changes, e.g., when new documents are filed in a particular case. Documentation on how to do this is available from,[2] then clicking on "FAQ" (typically near the bottom left), then "What Are Alerts and How Do They Work?", then "see their documentation" at the end of that brief section. That took me to a web page with "Help with Alerts on CourtListener". That documentation began by explaining limitations. Then it said, 'To create a RECAP Alert, simply find the docket you are interested in following, and look for the green button with a bell shaped icon that says, "Get Alerts"'.

To "Get Alerts" for "Hachette v. Internet Archive", I went to "RECAP archive", searched for "Hachette v. Internet Archive", and clicked on "Hachette Book Group, Inc. v. Internet Archive (1:20-cv-04160) District Court, S.D. New York", as before. Below that heading, there are three green buttons and one blue, saying, "Add Note", "Tags", "Get Alerts", and "View on PACER", respectively.

I clicked, "Get Alerts" and got "Please Sign In or Register". I logged in, clicked "RECAP Archive" again, then searched for "Hachette v. Internet Archive", and clicked again on "Hachette Book Group, Inc. v. Internet Archive (1:20-cv-04160) District Court, S.D. New York", then clicked "Get Alerts". The green "Get Alerts" button changed to red saying, "Disable Alerts", and a message appeared briefly near the top center of the page in small print saying, "Alerts are now enabled for this docket". I can later click the red "Disable Alerts" button if I decide I no longer want alerts for changes in that docket.

Apple Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co.


Question: What happens when we search for "Apple v. Samsung" in the "RECAP archive"?

Answer: On 2023-04-17 I got, "7,289 Cases — 36,756 Docket Entries".

Comment: A web search for "Apple v. Samsung" led me to a Wikipedia article on "Apple Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co.", which talked about "patent wars". You can get court documents via Court Listener / RECAP for [almost?] any of those that were in US federal courts.

Fish v. Kobach


"RECAP" was used in 2018 to research information needed when writing the Wikipedia article on Fish v. Kobach. That case involved multiple appeals, and the appeals were not exhausted until after (a) Kris Kobach had been replaced by Scott Schwab as the Secretary of State of Kansas and (b) the name of the case had been changed to Fish v. Schwab. Thus, in searching for this case, we will hope to find documents in the records of (i) the United States District Court for the District of Kansas as well as (ii) the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Denver, which is the appellate court for US District Court for Kansas, and (iii) the Supreme Court of the United States.

A search for "Fish v. Kobach" in the "RECAP archive" on 2023-04-15 found "373 Cases — 1,505 Docket Entries".

  • The first three were in the "10th Cir." in Denver. The first one was filed and terminated in 2016. The next two were filed 2018-07-03 and 2018-09-04, respectively. That third one was terminated 2019-03-05.
  • The next one was the primary case filed in "D. Kan." 2016-02-17 and terminated 2018-06-19. This summary displayed 5 specific documents and a note inviting the user to "View 847 Additional Results for this Case".
  • The next one was for "Keener v. Kobach (D. Kan. 2015)", which was also terminates 2018-06-19. Evidently, it had been combined with Fish v. Kobach and terminated on the same date.
  • The next was for "Supreme v. Kobach (D. Kan. 2018)", filed 2018-06-22 and terminated 2018-07-11. It was Assigned To: Eric F. Melgren and Referred To: James P. O'Hara. The lead party in the suit was Vermin Love Supreme, hence the name. By clicking on "Supreme v. Kobach (D. Kan. 2018)" and then on the button to change to descending order, we found that the last document was number 29, being a "Notice of Voluntary Dismissal", in which says, "PLEASE TAKE NOTICE that Plaintiff VERMIN LOVE SUPREME hereby voluntarily dismisses all claims as to all Defendants without prejudice pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(1)(A)(i)."
  • The next was for "Fish v. Schwab (10th Cir. 2018)" filed 2018-07-03. This was an appeal to the 10th Circuit Court in Denver. I Clicked on "Fish v. Schwab (10th Cir. 2018)" and then on the button to display the last document first. The summary of that last document said, "Case argued by Toby Crouse for the appellant; and by Dale Ho for the appellee; and submitted to Judges Briscoe, McKay and Holmes. Johnson, Mark P. removed from arguing." To learn more, I could "Buy on PACER". Summaries of other documents in this case mentioned an "Amicus Curiae State of Michigan" filed 2019-02-01 and withdrawn 2019-02-07.

At "RECAP archive",[3] there is also a capability to "Select Jurisdictions". I clicked "Select Jurisdictions", then "Clear All" (at the top of the pop up menu), then "Supreme Court" and "Tenth Circuit", then "Apply". Searching with that restriction for "Fish v. Kobach" returned 8 matches. Searching for "Fish v. Schwab" with that restriction returned only 2 cases.


  1. The 10 cents per page fee is as of 2023-04-12. In addition, the fee for any single document is limited to $3, and any PACER account will be charged only if it accrues more than $15 in a calendar quarter.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Court Listener, Free Law Project, Wikidata Q117745639
  3. 3.0 3.1 "RECAP archive"
  4. Lila Bailey, Wikidata Q117745845
  5. Lila Bailey (20 March 2023). "Press conference statement: Lila Bailey, Internet Archive". Internet Archive Press Conference: March 20, 2023. Wikidata Q117745831. 
  6. Imke Reimers (25 February 2022), Expert report of Imke Reimers, Ph.D., Wikidata Q117749346
  7. Ian T. Foster (31 March 2022), Supplemental expert report of Prof. Ian Foster, Wikidata Q117749404
  8. Rasmus Jørgensen (27 May 2022), Reply expert report of Rasmus Jørgensen, PhD, Wikidata Q117756653
  9. Rasmus Jørgensen (25 February 2022), Expert report of Rasmus Jørgensen, PhD, Wikidata Q117757229