Sunday, January 19, 2014

Return of the 4th Circuit Records & Briefs

After several years of vacation at the University's off-site storage facility, the Goodson Law Library's print collection of records and briefs from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has returned to Level 1 of the library. The print collection includes briefs and other filings from federal cases which were appealed to the Fourth Circuit during the years 1891 to 1976. (Similar materials from 1983 to 1998 are available in the Microforms Room on Level 1; filings from 1998 to present can be found online via PACER, available to the Duke Law community through Bloomberg Law.) The Fourth Circuit hears appeals from federal cases which originated in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland.

Records and briefs include the papers which were submitted to or generated by a court in a particular case, from the complaint (in a civil case) or the indictment (in a criminal case) to pleadings, motions, orders, transcripts of the trial, jury verdicts, and associated materials. Legal researchers may consult these materials to gain insight into the arguments which persuaded (or failed to persuade) the court, or to discover more factual background about the original trial than was provided in an appellate court’s opinion. Older documents contained in records and briefs compilations are often unavailable electronically.

For example, the Fourth Circuit Records & Briefs collection includes filings from some Civil Rights Era lawsuits, such as Simkins v. Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital (1963). Simkins represented an important victory in the continued battle against "separate but equal" racial discrimination. The suit was originally filed in a Greensboro federal District Court by African-American doctors and patients, who had been denied access to the defendants' private hospitals due to racial exclusion policies. Although the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education had invalidated the "separate but equal" doctrine nearly a decade earlier, this ruling was considered applicable only to discrimination by "instrumentalities of government." The plaintiffs' lawyers argued that the defendant hospitals received public funding from the government, but the U.S. District Court held that these connections to public funding did not make the hospitals "instrumentalities of government" for equal protection purposes.

However, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reviewed the District Court's opinion for error, reversed the lower court's opinion a year later. Local historians called it the first time the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was applied to actions by private entities. (Most law students likely associate that concept with the famous Heart of Atlanta Motel case – which was decided the following year, in 1964, following the passage of the Civil Rights Act.)

So where can a researcher go to locate filings from the original case and its appeal? Westlaw, Lexis and Bloomberg include the full text of the lower and appellate court opinions, but do not link to any filings for these cases (although for more modern cases, it is common to find briefs and other materials linked from the text of opinions). Although the hospitals appealed their loss to the U.S. Supreme Court (which declined to hear the case), our U.S. Supreme Court Records & Briefs database includes only a handful of filings appended to the petition for certiorari and accompanying briefs. The Fourth Circuit Records and Briefs set, on the other hand, includes more than 300 pages of materials associated with the Simkins case, including briefs for both parties, the text of the original complaint against the hospitals, affidavits of witnesses, hospital charters and organization charts, and various other exhibits.

It's important to note that the paper records and briefs are not a comprehensive collection; the set is arranged by docket number and not every case is included. But if your case is there, the print set will provide additional insights into your research which may not be available electronically. For more information about court records and briefs, consult the library's recently-updated research guide or Ask a Librarian.