John Roska: Finding judicial decisions isn't easy

Q: Can I research a judge's decisions? I want to know what the judge in my divorce case has done in other cases.

A: If you want the decisions of a state court judge, at the county level, you're mostly out of luck. Although deciding cases and entering orders is pretty much all judges do at that "trial court" level, few decisions get set down in formal, written opinions. And when they are, those decisions don't get compiled into law books you can consult.

The cases that people do consult come from appellate courts. The Illinois appellate court reviews final decisions from county trial courts, and the Supreme Court reviews appellate court decisions.

Those are all written decisions, publicly available. From 1996 on, they're free at state.il.us/court/Opinions/archive.asp.

It's possible to find appellate cases that review a particular trial court judge's decisions. But those don't often say much about what the trial court judge said — just whether they were affirmed or reversed.

Federal judges do everything in writing. Some of their decisions end up in books or databases people can study. Public access is tricky, since there are 94 different district courts, each with its own website.

Just which federal decisions get "published" is somewhat arcane. All files are open to the public, but only some get compiled into those books or databases. You'll have to dig, then, to find a recent federal judge's decision denying the University of Illinois' request to stop Micron from telling faculty it would stop recruiting Illini as a result of the university filing a patent infringement suit against it.

State trial court judges occasionally compose written decisions or orders. But that's the exception. Routine orders in open court are announced orally, with the circuit clerk's "docket entry" the only written record of what was done.

Docket entries are a bare-bones, running summary of what happens in a case. They're often cryptic. ("DOTA," I learned recently, means "defendant ordered to appear.")

When written orders or judgments exist in the trial court, they're often drafted by a lawyer in the case. That's expected in routine divorces, where the language of a final decree isn't a mystery.

In other situations, when a judge rules one way or another, a lawyer is directed to reduce it to writing. The other side gets to review and approve the proposed order before the judge signs off. If the parties disagree on whether a proposed order accurately sets out what the judge said, they can settle their dispute with a hearing back in front of the judge.

When a trial judge actually composes the occasional formal written order or decision, it's usually a final decision that concludes the whole case. But it might be a preliminary ruling, like on a motion to dismiss.

Those formal written decisions are sometimes made publicly available, on a court website, or through a local bar's email list. They help clarify local procedures, or how a judge wants things done.

Local lawyers, then, might know about decisions from local judges. If you knew of a particular decision in a particular case, you could see or copy it, since all court files are open to the public. But there's just no central, organized system.

John Roska is a lawyer with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation. You can send your questions to The Law Q&A, 302 N. First St., Champaign, IL 61820. Questions may be edited for space.

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