Finding Sealed Cases

January 4, 2011

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit recently affirmed the contempt conviction of a defendant who directed an obscenity at a judge during a sentencing hearing.  The opinion is available on Westlaw at 2010 WL 5299865.  If you click that link, you’ll notice that the title of the case is In re Sealed Case because, naturally, the case has been sealed.  This brings to mind a research problem I’ve encountered a few times.

We often get calls from individuals looking for a specific case about which they have limited information.  Perhaps the most frequent such call is from a person who knows the name of at least one party, but may not know the citation, jurisdiction, or date of the opinion.  The easiest method to find such a case is to perform a party-name search using the Title field.  For example, if you know that one party’s name is Smith and the opinion was issued by a judge in the Federal District Court for the District of Minnesota, you can run a search in the DCTMN database for ti(smith).  However, if the case you’re looking for has been sealed, that search will not return it, because Smith’s name will not appear in the case title.  You may be thinking, “if the case is sealed, how would I know any of the parties’ names to try that search in the first place?”  For every sealed case, there are likely numerous individuals who are aware of the names of the parties.  If you are one of those people, or asked to find the case by one of those people, your first instinct will likely be to search by the parties’ names.

Given the possibility of a case being sealed, it might be worth running a search using information other than the parties’ names when the case you’re looking for cannot be found via a party-name search.  For example, knowing the defendant’s name would do us no good in finding the sealed case linked above, but a search in the CTADC database for contempt /s obscen! vulgar! will retrieve the case.

It is relatively rare that this will happen (a search in ALLCASES for ti(sealed) returns only about 500 documents, not all of which are sealed cases), but I have had at least a couple calls in which we have discovered, after several failed party-name searches, that the case we were looking for had been sealed.