Better & Faster Data The Debut of the U.S. PartyCase Index
fter I briefly discussed the U.S. Party/Case Index Project (Index) in this column in May  and Ted C. Willmann, manager of the PACER Service Center in San Antonio, demonstrated the prototype at the Annual Spring Meeting, I received a number of requests for more information about the federal judiciary's national locator service. Since the Index should be implemented nationwide soon after this article is published, now is a good time to take you on a narrative tour of its features.
First of all, the Index should be of interest to any ABI member who seeks bankruptcy information on a national basis. Before you conclude that means the Index is only for major league players, think about the debtor's attorney who would like to verify that a client has not sought bankruptcy relief in the last six years and does not have any significant student loan judgments in federal court. Instead of dialing into the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) machine in every bankruptcy and district court in the country, the attorney would simply place one call to the PACER Service Center (Center) for that basic information.
Access to the Index will be easy. All you need is a personal computer with a modem and phone line to dial into the Center. Any communications software package will do. If you are one of the more than 30,000 registrants of the federal judiciary's public access services, you would use your current log-in information. Before reaching the main menu, you will have an opportunity to enter a client code in case you need to track different sessions for your own billing purposes.
Next the main menu will appear. It includes the following options: 1) Bankruptcy Information Menu; 2) Civil Information Menu; 3) Criminal Information Menu; 4) Appellate Information Menu; 5) Date Ranges of the Information Provided; 6) Message Center; 7) General Information and Bulletins; 8) Review Billing History; and 9) Change Password. The fifth option allows you to check how far back the electronic case information goes for each appellate, district and bankruptcy court. The dates will vary because the data in the Index come from the PACER machines in individual courts and not all courts have collected and maintained case information for the same length of time. (Since the Center will collect subsets of data nightly from extraction programs on the PACER machines, the end dates should be uniform for all courts absent extraordinary circumstances.)
If you choose the first option from the main menu, you will see the following choices: 1) Party Name or Social Security Number Search; 2) Party Name or Social Security Number Search with Case Title; 3) Party Name Keyword Search; 4) Party Name Keyword Search with Case Title; and 5) Date Ranges of the Information Provided. Note that you again have the ability to check date ranges before commencing a search but here only as to data available from the various bankruptcy courts. The four search options are relatively easy to follow.
If you are searching by party name, more is better. Type in the last name followed by a comma and the first name and initial. (If all you know is the last name, that will do; however, the search will take longer, especially if the last name is extremely common.) No need to worry about capital letters. And, yes, the Index will track an alias.
After you enter the name, a court selection screen appears. It lists the federal circuits and the 50 states. It does not separately list the districts within a state. You may search a single site by typing the number in front of the site, by typing the name of the site or an abbreviation for the site. You may search any combination of the sites by adding the relevant numbers, names or abbreviations. You may search all sites by typing in the letter "a" or the word "all," or by hitting the enter key.
After you enter the courts you wish to search, the Index completes the search. The next screen advises you of the number of matches the Index has located. At this point, you may chose to view, print, capture or download the information or quit the search session altogether. (These options are similar to those found on the standard PACER screens in individual courts.) If you choose to view the information, the next screen will list any matches for the name you chose with the sites you selected and will identify the relevant case numbers and filing dates. Where applicable, the Index will specify the district within a state.
If you wish to conduct a search by social security number, you must enter at least seven digits of the nine-digit number. You then follow the same routine with respect to the court selection and the case matches screens. Note that a name or social security number search only provides the number of the bankruptcy case or adversary proceeding. The second option from the Bankruptcy Information Menu provides captions. (At the present time, the Index does not identify the type of chapter or relate an adversary proceeding to a particular chapter case.) The search steps for the Party Name or Social Security Number Search with Case Title are similar to those described for a name or a social security number search.
Finally, the Party Name Keyword Search option allows you to search a particular word or words located within a name. Once again the basic search steps remain the same. The case matches screen will provide you with all the cases in which the keyword appears in a party name regardless of other qualifiers (like Corp., Corporation Inc. and Incorporated). Though this search was put into the Index at the specific request of some of the federal judiciary's customers, the usefulness of the present format remains to be seen. For example, since a major creditor may have appeared in many cases to file a motion for relief from stay, a keyword search on "ford" would turn up numerous matches even if limited to one court site. Resorting to the Party Name Keyword Search with Case Title may render some of the matches more meaningful, but once again the Index does not provide the chapter number or relate adversary proceedings to chapter cases.
Though space limitations prevent a thorough review of the remaining three information menus listed on the Index's main menu, I do want to give you a quick overview of the Civil Information Menu for comparison. That menu presents you with the following options: 1) Party Name Search; 2) Party Name Search with Case Title; 3) Party Name Keyword Search; 4) Party Name Keyword Search with Case Title; 5) Nature of Suit Search; 6) Nature of Suit Code Descriptions; 7) Prisoner Litigation Name Search; and 8) Date Ranges of the Information Provided.
Once again, you can check the date ranges for the civil case information from the various district courts and proceed to search as before, except that you do not have the option to search by social security number. Instead, you can select Nature of Suit Search, which is a search that can be conducted on one or more types of suits in the current year, prior year or in all cases in the date ranges. Before beginning such a search, it would be a good idea to review the Nature of Suit Code Descriptions. It contains numerous codes for the variety of civil suits in district courts, including suits to recover defaulted student loans. Finally, the Prisoner Litigation Name Search addresses the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act's "three strikes" rule.
Eventually, you will be able to request the Center to retrieve docket information for the matches you have found for review and downloading. For the time being, however, you must dial into the appropriate court PACER machines for that additional information. Considering that a typical search for matches under any of the search options can be conducted in two minutes or less, even this initial version of the Index will be a very cost-effective tool for many.
If you would like more information about the Index or wish to offer suggestions for enhancements, contact the Center at (800) 676-6856.
See, "You Asked for It—The U.S. Party/Case Index and More," ABI Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 4, May 1997.[RETURN TO TEXT]