Elusive civil rights court records now just a click away with new online database

For the past 50-plus years, civil rights litigation has greatly affected Americans’ lives. It has secured our Constitutional rights, and it has dramatically improved many of our public and private institutions.

The landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation of public education, is a perfect example of how these cases transformed American schooling, politics and life.

Information about these cases, however, has been exceedingly difficult to locate. Until now.

Thurgood Marshall (center) with George E.C. Hayes and James Nabri celebrating the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Thurgood Marshall (center) with George E.C. Hayes and James Nabri celebrating the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

Margo Schlanger, J.D., a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, teamed with colleagues and students to create a free electronic library that for the first time makes available to the public a large body of civil rights cases, including the settlements, court orders, opinions, case study research, key filings and other documents.

Called the “Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse,” the repository houses thousands of documents related to more than 1,000 civil rights injunctive cases — those seeking policy or operational change as opposed to monetary awards. It is accessible at clearinghouse.wustl.edu.

The cases involve a wide variety of issues, including prisons and jails; mental retardation and mental-health facilities; policing; nursing home conditions; election and voting rights; immigration; and school desegregation.

“These are among critical cases that regulate our public institutions, setting the terms on which they operate — but it has been extremely difficult for any but the most determined researchers to find out the key facts and results of the cases,” Schlanger said.

Attorneys and researchers can spend weeks hunting for them and often must travel to courthouses and repositories to obtain them.

Support for the clearinghouse may become more critical in light of recent efforts at the National Archives and Records Administration, Schlanger added.

“The National Archives is considering destroying some or all of the documents in federal cases after 1970 that didn’t go to trial,” said Schlanger.

“But non-trial cases — those that settle or get decided on the basis of a legal rule rather than factual disputes — can be extraordinarily important. So we believe they should be preserved in an accessible format, like the clearinghouse.”

The clearinghouse collection offers more than archival documents. It includes citations and links to several thousand additional opinions rendered in its cases and case summaries complete with procedural histories that recount important pre- and post-decree activity.

Liberty, justice for all

A leading authority on civil rights litigation, Schlanger said that court records can be a treasure trove for those inside and outside of the legal profession.

“They can serve as important information sources not only for legal researchers, but also for historians, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, students, teachers, advocates and policymakers,” she said.

Schlanger noted the groups that stand to benefit by accessing the clearinghouse collection:

• Policymakers interested in corrections, education, housing and other areas can view plans and reforms that have been implemented in other jurisdictions, drawing on previously unavailable court decrees that have served as a source of regulatory innovation.

• Attorneys and judges can use the collection as a tool for designing remedies. A search for a specific type of case, for example, will provide insights into actions that others have taken.

• Researchers and analysts will better understand the interplay between law and public policy and can examine the course of litigation, as well as post-decree and oversight activity.

• Law professors can draw on the repository to teach students about the complexities of litigation, providing examples of the many documents involved in civil rights cases.

• Students high-school age and older can make important connections between the legal system and the workings of institutions and organizations.

• The general public will learn about the rules under which the public institutions in their lives operate.

A democratic success

While judicial opinions and case settlements might be reported by a variety of sources — U.S. district courts, Westlaw and Lexis databases, and media outlets, to name a few — these offer more of a quick take on one component of a litigation rather than a comprehensive view of the case.

Moreover, many cases never get any coverage. Even vital information about important cases often is absent from accessible sources.

Said Schlanger: “The clearinghouse recognizes that the story of a litigation doesn’t end with a liability finding or decree. There is often continued court jurisdiction and post-decree action and oversight.”

The clearinghouse is supported by Washington University’s School of Law, including its Center for Empirical Research in the Law, and the American Culture Studies and Legal Studies programs in Arts & Sciences.

“We hope that this kind of access will be not only a technocratic success, but a democratic one, as well.”