UPDATE (May 2018): Though what’s contained in the civil case database is now a few years out of date, it is still a useful resource. Because there has been no change in the New Jersey Court System’s online application (ACMS) or process for providing members of the public access to civil court filings since this post was first published, this post also demonstrates the need for change — e.g., a better search engine for cases and easier access to the filed documents.
Database last updated 08/19/2014
Gannett’s DataUniverse has downloaded our database and provided public access to it with a very useful search engine, online here.
To download a complete package as a ZIP File, click here. In addition to the full database, the zip file includes a readme file that explains in detail how we compiled the database as well as a “lean and mean” version that shows the 16,000 cases many journalists and activists find most interesting.
In June 2012, the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG), as a public service, paid the New Jersey 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.
In August 2014, we paid another $652.50 to obtain an update to one of the raw data files and expanded our database by 172,000 cases to show over 432,000 Superior Court cases filed through July 31, 2014.
WHY IS THIS DATABASE NEEDED?
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 you already know that Debra Thomas filed a ‘civil rights’ lawsuit against the Borough of Longport and Longport Police Sergeant rank Culmone, you can go the state courts’ web-based search engine (on-line here), search on Thomas’ or Culmone’s name and learn that the case’s docket number is ATL-L-001213-14 and other information about the case.
But what if you didn’t know a party’s name or docket number? Suppose, instead, that you wanted a list of all ‘civil rights’ 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, as a public service, NJFOG paid the court system close to $1400 for information on over 432,000 Superior Court cases filed from January 1, 2002 through July 31, 2014.
By using basic text editing and sorting software (i.e EditPlus and CMSort), you can learn things like the number of civil rights cases filed in Middlesex County in 2013 – there were 33 of them – and see that the Woodbridge Township and the Borough of Jamesburg were named as defendants in some of them. Gannett’s DataUniverse has downloaded our database and provided public access to it with a very useful search engine, online here.
To learn more about any specific case you find using the database, you can search the docket number on the State’s site. For example, you’ll learn that Matthew Freeman’s civil rights case against Edison Township (Docket MID-L-007994-13) was dismissed on April 10, 2014. If you wanted to find out more information about the case, you could then submit an Open Public Records Act request to Edison Township for the complaint and other case filings.
IS THE INFORMATION COMPLETE?
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 for and obtained.
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:
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 re-opened, closed and archived again within the same year.
We 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, while not complete, is as nearly complete a listing as we can produce. Recent cases are pretty complete, 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).