September 27, 2013

Newsrooms across the country have been hemorrhaging staff for more than a decade. They’ve had to cut back on major areas of coverage, including investigative reporting and another important beat: court reporting.

Today, reporters might be dispatched to cover big trials, but everyday lawsuits and court hearings are often overlooked. The courts can provide a rich source of daily stories as well as compelling narrative features, and it doesn’t take much time to keep tabs on them when you know what to do.

This piece offers six tips for tracking the legal cases you and your readers, listeners and viewers will want to know about. The tips focus on state courts because they’re often free; the federal courts make most cases available online, but they’re behind the PACER paywall. They can be tracked via Lexis Nexis, but that also costs money.

Check for new cases once a week.

Every state has its own court system, with courts in just about every county. Many have websites where you can look through the titles of cases that have been filed recently. Often, you can refine your queries by looking at only civil cases exceeding a particular amount of money, and cases filed within, say, the past week. Skim these to see whether any local public figures or businesses are suing someone — or being sued.

Some courts post these documents online. If they don’t, they’ll provide you with the names of the attorneys involved, many of whom will be happy to share the PDFs. Not all of them will turn out to be newsworthy, but it only takes a few minutes to skim through them to find out what the core dispute is about — and what kind of legal remedies, including money, the plaintiffs are asking for.

Look up important names regularly.

Those same court websites will also usually let you search for cases by the names of the people or businesses involved. If they do, make a list of local figures, including elected officials, top appointed leaders and others your newsroom follows, as well as important local businesses. Once a week or so, look up these names and see if they’re involved in any new litigation.

Of course, anyone can sue over just about anything, and even in civil cases, people are innocent until found guilty by a judge or a jury. People and companies with money are targets for litigation (just ask Google). Cities often face lawsuits when, for example, citizens are arrested and roughed up by police, or when someone is harmed in a public park. Those can make good follow-ups to articles about the underlying events.

Go with your gut.

If you look at enough court filings, after a while they all begin to look the same. The courts are full of lawsuits claiming that electronics companies price-fixed computer components, or that a drug company misled patients about the risks of a particular medication, so it’s tough to tease out the newsworthy ones.

Once in a while, a case title begs for further investigation, such as “United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins,” a case mentioned in Sarah Stillman’s recent feature for the New Yorker, “Taken.”

Other factors can also inspire you to dig, Stillman said in an email interview.

“Was a child involved? What was the magnitude of this person’s alleged loss? Does the complaint seem credible? Are there random, quirky things that just pique my interest for inexplicable reasons? All of these can be factors driving my decision to explore further, to pick up the phone or show up at an address,” she said. “After slogging through countless documents, you’re inevitably going to find a few that give you that ‘Wow, I have to pursue this’ feeling.”

Uncover the story behind the court documents.

Once in a while, a court filing — or a pattern of them — calls for a deeper look. Although “Taken” was inspired by one of Stillman’s prior articles, it also hinged on a pattern of perfunctory court filings that described assets seized by law-enforcement officials, as well as the lawsuits filed by those citizens. Those lawsuits provided a timeline, narrative structure and the names of potential sources who could put a face on the case, Stillman said.

“Nothing adds more to a story than actually enriching the material I’ve gleaned with the in-person, flesh-and-blood insights that come from spending time with the individuals involved,” she said.

Check out the court’s tentative rulings.

Many times, judges will post their tentative rulings the day before a hearing, so the attorneys in a case will be able to prepare for the judge’s thoughts or questions. These often provide basic information about the case and a quick snapshot of the judge’s thinking on whether the case should go forward.

If you see something that interests you, follow up the next day with the attorneys or the court clerk to see if the judge adopted the tentative; that’s the start of a news story. If you can spare the time, cover the hearing itself. (If your local court has a daily law-and-motion calendar, sit in for an hour and take notes on the arguments and rulings; something lively is likely to happen.)

Converse with people, search the Web.

New York Times Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak uncovered the story of Shon Hopwood, the prisoner who wrote a fellow inmate’s Supreme Court petition, while chatting idly with a source on another topic entirely.

“After you’re done doing the story you think you’re doing, hang around and talk to people. You never know what tidbits will turn into a story later,” he told me by phone.

Likewise, Liptak said he’s uncovered some interesting cases simply by asking questions in the search box on legal-research sites. (From my own experience, Google works, too). Many will turn up public links to court filings — like an obscure Alabama court ruling that helped him set up his article on the Supreme Court’s recent repeal of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

“All you need is a little dab of color” when you search, Liptak said. “You already know what theme you want to pursue; you just need something to bring it to life.”

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