Using Court Records for Research, Teaching, and Policymaking: The Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse

16 Pages Posted: 22 Oct 2006

See all articles by Margo Schlanger

Margo Schlanger

University of Michigan Law School

Denise Lieberman

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law; Advancement Project


For the vast body of information currently hidden in district court records to be socially useful, it cannot merely be warehoused. In Part I of this Article, we present an anti-warehouse model - the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse, a new web-based resource built primarily around digitized court records, sponsored by Washington University in St. Louis. The Clearinghouse collects, indexes, and makes publicly available for research and observation a growing universe of civil rights cases and the settlements and court orders those cases have produced, which regulate government and private entities in myriad important ways. Because information in the Clearinghouse is easily and quickly accessible, fully indexed and searchable, and because the documents can be downloaded or copied, we are hopeful that it will transform the use of the included records.

The occasion for this discussion of our new web repository is that the National Archives is currently considering whether to keep or destroy huge portions of its voluminous collection of court records for cases since 1970. Its current regulation appears to embrace a view that historical court records are usually of only low or moderate value, insufficiently important to justify the resource allocation needed to preserve them all. In this brief article, we hope to demonstrate that this premise is incorrect. Court records have always been vital, and irreplaceable, sources for historical research. Made more accessible, as modern technology now allows and as our Clearinghouse demonstrates, court records can become central sources for much broader use for legal researchers; for historians, political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists; for students and teachers; and for advocates and policymakers. It is the absence of good alternatives that makes court records so important. In Part II, we explain why other types of records cannot substitute for litigation files, discussing the shortcomings of other sources of information about litigation. Part III concludes by arguing, very briefly, that trial status is an inappropriate proxy for the importance of a given piece of litigation. Therefore, NARA's commitment to maintain the records of tried cases is not a satisfactory approach.

Keywords: civil rights, litigation, courts, court records, internet, archives

JEL Classification: K41, K19

Suggested Citation

Schlanger, Margo and Lieberman, Denise, Using Court Records for Research, Teaching, and Policymaking: The Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse. University of Missouri-Kansas City Law Review, Vol. 75, p. 153, 2006; Washington U. School of Law Working Paper No. 06-11-03. Available at SSRN:

Margo Schlanger (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States

Denise Lieberman

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States

Advancement Project ( email )

1220 L Street NW
Suite 850
Washington, DC 20005
United States


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