Magazine article The Quill

Court Records: Gifts That Keep on Giving

Magazine article The Quill

Court Records: Gifts That Keep on Giving

Article excerpt

LAST SUMMER, the Associated Press broke a big ? story that garnered national headlines: Bill Cosby had admitted to obtaining Quaaludes to give to women, even as he continued to deny repeated allegations of sexual improprieties.

It was a bombshell scoop, but it came from a source that many journalists often overlook: court records.

The AP had asked a judge to unseal deposition transcripts in an old civil lawsuit against Cosby. While his lawyers challenged the request, the AP ultimately prevailed in getting access to the documents.

The case serves as an important lesson for reporters of all stripes that mining court records - no matter the beat - may bear fruit.

Consider:

* Search warrants, subpoenas and affidavits can be a treasure trove of information in criminal matters, especially in the early stages of an investigation and before charges have been filed. The documents can reveal detailed facts about an incident, what evidence investigators have collected and where authorities are pursuing leads. Such records may not be docketed, so reporters should ask for them specifically.

* The discovery process in civil litigation - when parties gather evidence from each other in the course of a lawsuit - can expose information that might not otherwise become public. For instance, when investigative journalists for "Frontline" and ProPublica were looking into the relationship between Firestone and a warlord in Liberia, where the company operates a rubber plantation, reporters came upon old court records in the basement of an Ohio courthouse. …

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