Our Presentation to the FOIA Advisory Committee on the Need for a Public Access Law for the Judicial Branch

Yesterday, along with Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress, I had the privilege of presenting to the FOIA Advisory Committee to the Archivist of the United States. He presented on the topic of what public access, FOIA-like laws might look like in the Legislative Branch, while I focused on the Judicial Branch.

To prepare for this meeting, I spoke with a number of FOIA and transparency experts to get their perspectives on and concerns about such a law. The general thrust of those conversations led to two major points that I made in my presentation:

1. We need more transparency from the Judicial Branch

Currently, the Judicial Branch responds to record requests under the Common Law Right of Access doctrine. This approach, established by English Parliament in 1372 and hence inherited by the United States, is essentially the default access that the public has when seeking records. In theory, it provides a balance between the public’s need for transparency and the government’s need for privacy or secrecy.

Picture of law review article explaining history of common law right of access

The Common Law Right to Inspect and Copy Judicial Records: In Camera or On Camera, 16 GA. L. REV. 659 (1982).

Unfortunately, the Common Law Right …

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Victory For Public Access To Court Documents

Free Law Project fights for the public’s right of access to the courts.

Support this Work

Free Law Project is a donor-funded 501(c)(3) that works to make legal information free and accessible.

Donate Now

In late September, Free Law Project was named in a sealing order out of the Southern District of New York which would have required us to block access to content from CourtListener. We pushed back against this order, and we’re happy to share that earlier this week, the court reversed course and unsealed the case after we and others raised First Amendment concerns about the order’s interference with the public’s right of access to the courts.

We regularly receive removal requests from litigants. This court order was different: It named Free Law Project and ordered us to remove an entire docket and all its filings that had been publicly available for years. It named search engines such as Google, DuckDuckGo, and Bing, and ordered them to remove the case from their search results. It even went so far as to order a prominent international law firm to remove a blog post discussing the case.

We also noticed that commercial services …

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Seamus Hughes talks to FLP about PACER fees and fishing for documents

Seamus Hughes Headshot

When he’s not researching Islamist extremism or uncovering potential terror plots in the United States, Seamus Hughes is using documents available to anyone to break potential news stories, often beating journalists at their own game.

He’s become adept at navigating the Public Access to Court Electronic Records, or as it’s often referred to, PACER. It’s the website that gives the public access to federal court documents filed in every district in the United States, including bankruptcy courts.

For example, at the end of August. Hughes nonchalantly tweeted out a tip about an Arizona man who’d been arrested and charged with threatening to shoot Vice President Mike Pence.

Or there’s that time in July, when Hughes helped break the story about the capture of South Korea’s most wanted man, Yoo Hyuk-kee, who’d been on the run for over five years after the 2014 sinking of a ferry that killed more than 300 people.

Then, earlier this month, Hughes tweeted out a tip to any Greensboro, North Carolina journalist, about a man running a number of COVID-19 frauds worth millions of dollars.

In the past, Hughes worked for the U.S. Senate Homeland …

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All current bankruptcy and federal magistrate judges are now in CourtListener

One of the goals of Free Law Project is to help make the legal ecosystem innovative and competitive. Today with the support of Pre/Dicta and the help of the Federal Judicial Center (FJC), we’re happy to be taking another step towards that goal. Today we are announcing tht we have added more than 1,000 current bankruptcy and federal magistrate judges to our database of judges. As always, we are making this data available via the CourtListener.com website, via our APIs, and in bulk.

To our knowledge, this is the first time that a complete list of federal magistrate and bankruptcy judges has ever been freely available.

The release of this information will help organizations jump start their innovation. Rather than spending their time building up their own database of this information, organizations can now simply download the data from us and load it into their systems.

For researchers and individuals, this data directly impacts the utility of the CourtListener system, where we’ve already integrated it. Wherever possible, CourtListener will now provide links to judge profiles, where you can learn more about a given judge. For many of the judges we even have their portrait.

The …

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As Bloomberg Law imposes caps on PACER access, PACER must support academics.

For years, Bloomberg Law has shared its immense collection of PACER data with academic researchers in subscribing institutions. Bloomberg Law has done so as a standard feature of its subscription service, and would even go purchase documents from PACER if a researcher so requested it. As the director of Free Law Project I have talked to numerous researchers that used this system as a backbone of their legal research. From a researcher’s perspective it was great: Your institution paid an annual fee and in exchange you had access to the PACER information you needed.

Well, it appears those days are coming to an end. Over the past several days, we’ve heard from numerous sources that Bloomberg Law is finally imposing restrictions on how much academics can pull from their system. The restrictions we’ve heard from our sources are:

  1. Individual users can only trigger the purchase of $1,500 worth of PACER content per year.

  2. At most 30% of an institution’s Bloomberg Law subscription fees can be used to purchase PACER data.

In other words, there’s a per-user cap and a per-institution cap.

Putting these numbers in context is difficult. How many documents does $1,500 …

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Announcing a New Open Database of Court Information, IDs, and Parsers

John Adams Courthouse

One court, many names: The “Supreme Court of Massachusetts”, the “Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts”, “The State of Mass. Supreme Court”, the “Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court”, and the list goes on. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Since 2010 when we launched CourtListener, one of our goals has been to build a complete, accurate, and audited collection of open case law. Today that goal takes a major step forward as we announce a new tool we have built to parse court data.

A critical step in parsing court opinions is knowing which court produced the opinion. Unfortunately, courts change their names over time and so we encounter opinions from the “Supreme Court of Massachusetts”, the “Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts”, and the “Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court”, among others. These are all names for the very same court of last resort in Massachusetts, so we created a tool that recognizes all these varied names.

We call our tool the Free Law Project Courts-DB.

Using Courts-DB, you can easily look up the name of nearly any American court with published cases going back to 1600. We have used this functionality to parse nearly 16 million court names. After doing so, our accuracy at …

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Citation Data Gets Richer

This is a guest post by Matt Dahl, a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Notre Dame.

Authorities sidebar with citation counts

Citation data is a keystone of legal research—both for understanding a particular judicial decision and for discovering similar ones. However, binary information about whether one opinion cites another can only tell us so much.

Therefore, today I’m excited to announce that CourtListener is now calculating and making available a much richer metric of inter-opinion connectedness. Today we are introducing citation depth to indicate how many times every opinion cites another.

This means that in addition to recognizing and recording “full” citation references—e.g., Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98—CourtListener is now parsing and counting the following kinds of citations as well:

  • Short form citations (e.g., 531 U.S., at 99)
  • Supra citations (e.g., Bush, supra, at 100)
  • Id. citations (e.g., Id., at 101)
  • Ibid. citations (i.e., Ibid.)

Because these abbreviated citations lack the detailed information contained in a full citation, they can be tricky to count correctly. Thus, this upgrade represents a major advance in CourtListener’s citation-detection abilities, and brings us closer to feature parity with commercial legal research …

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Free Law Project now has every reported U.S. Tax opinion


The United States Tax Court: Photo by GSA.

A lot of ink has been spilled and opinions shared about income tax since the 16th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1913. Here at Free Law Project, we believe few opinions matter as much as the precedential tax opinions produced by the federal courts, first at the Board of Tax Appeals (1924-1942) and later by the United States Tax Court (1942-).

That is why we are happy to announce that we have compiled, collected and analyzed the complete collection of precedential federal tax opinions. Our collection of tax cases spans two courts, nearly a century, and comprises nearly twenty-four thousand precedential opinions. We also have over twelve thousand non-precedential opinions in our database.

All new projects require improvements and enhancements to our code base, and this one was no different. For example, we added new tools to analyze and parse tax opinions. This enables us to find and extract missing, yet relevant information from tax opinions. This grows our already robust dataset, and we think will make your search queries even easier.

Thank you to the Caselaw Access Project at Harvard and BlueJLegal for helping us complete our …

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Citation Alerts are Better than Ever

How to create citation alerts

Back in 2016 we mentioned in a blog post that you can set up alerts to learn about new references to opinions in CourtListener. We called it: “Citation Alerts”, but they were a bit difficult to set up. Today we’re announcing that we’ve revamped Citation Alerts so they’re more obvious, easier to create, and easier to modify.

Citation Alerts are a wildly powerful feature that can be used to stay apprised of changes in the law. Basic Citation Alerts will send you an email when there’s a new cite to an opinion you’re following, but you can take them much further.

For example, let’s say you want to follow citations to Citizens United v. FEC. Doing that is really easy. Just open the case on CourtListener and on the left you’ll see a link for creating an alert. Click it and you’re all set.

But that’s only the beginning. Since 2010, Citizens has been cited about 650 times. That translates to more than one email a week. That’s probably too much clutter in your inbox, but you can prevent this by refining your alert. How about only citations from federal …

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We’ve added nearly 1,000 images to our open collection of judge portraits

We’re thrilled to share today that with the support of Pre/Dicta, our open collection of judge portraits is substantially updated with nearly 1,000 additional photos. These photos have been gathered from open sources such as Wikipedia, and have been meticulously cropped, edited, and organized so that they can easily be dropped into websites or other applications. For our part, we will be adding them to our database of judges.

These pictures cover federal circuit and district judges from all time periods and jurisdictions. While we continue to add and round out our already robust collection of data on federal and state judges, these pictures add a visual element that straight data lacks.

The images themselves are hosted in a Git repository, where they’re available in widths of 128, 256, and 512 pixels. Of course if those sizes don’t work for you, the original photos are available too. To use the photos, simply clone the repository, import our data file about the judges and then start linking to them.

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Free Law Project Participates in Chilean Judicial Modernization Initiative

Street art reading Justice

Graffiti in the Plaza Baquedano, the heart of Santiago’s protest movement.

Last week, as executive director of Free Law Project, I had the privilege of traveling to Santiago, Chile to participate in their conference on “Electronic Processing of Justice.” The conference was convened by the Chilean judiciary with the goal of comparing and contrasting judicial modernization efforts across jurisdictions.

Although the conference was shortened due to the ongoing unrest in Chile, over a two day period I was able to share my experiences with electronic court systems in America and with government software development generally. This was the first time that Free Law Project was invited by another country to help with their modernization efforts, and I was proud to represent the organization.

In my presentation, I made several suggestions to the Chilean judiciary (pdf), with the goal of answering the question, “What actions or techniques would make a judicial technology initiative successful?”

Here’s what I proposed:

  1. Focus on openness of the system, with open source code, an open development process, an open feedback loop from stakeholders and the public, open data standards, and open data models.

  2. Whenever possible, provide bulk data, APIs, and full-text search so that …

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Announcing our new PACER Fetch APIs

Until today, if you wanted to add something to the RECAP Archive on CourtListener, you had only one option: Use the RECAP Extensions to purchase the item from PACER, and let the extensions do the upload on your behalf. While that works well, many of our users — especially those that use our APIs — have asked for something more. Could we provide an API for them to more easily get PDFs and dockets from PACER? As of today, with the support of the employment law firm Jet.law, the answer is finally yes. Starting today, we have a new free API released in Beta that anybody can use to get dockets and PDFs from PACER and add them to our website, APIs, and replication systems.

This is a tool for the techies, so here’s how it works. Let’s say you want a docket from PACER. Get it with:

curl -X POST \
    # Type 1 is for dockets  
    --data 'request_type=1' \
    # The docket number and court you want
    --data 'docket_number=5:16-cv-00432' \
    --data 'court=okwd' \
    # Your PACER and Courtlistener credentials
    --data 'pacer_username=john_w_powell' \
    --data 'pacer_password=coloradoadventures' \
    --header 'Authorization: Token <your-token-here>' \

That’ll add …

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Hear Our Executive Director on the Lawyerist Podcast

I had a long chat with Sam Glover on the Lawyerist podcast a few weeks ago and it’s going live today! Have a listen to hear us talk about PACER fees, open legal data, the PACER lawsuit, and the challenges of running an open data non-profit like Free Law Project.

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We’ve Integrated the FJC Integrated Database into CourtListener

The Integrated Database provided by the Federal Judicial Center is one of the best-kept secrets in the world of legal information. Updated quarterly, it has metadata about every case in PACER (and many that are not), including civil, criminal, and bankruptcy cases. If the case is in PACER, this is often the only way to get in-depth metadata about it short of carefully reading the docket. The IDB is a treasure trove of data for researchers, litigants, and the public.

We are proud to share that we have begun integrating the IDB into our dockets on CourtListener. This is the first time we know of that the IDB data has been united with data from PACER data in an easily accessible way.

This project was made possible through generous support from one of our sponsors.

View a Live Example

So far we have integrated the IDB civil data set, so when you look at civil dockets on CourtListener, you will see a new tab like this:

On the tab, only partially shown above, there are 28 new fields about the case. These include things like whether the case was disposed (and in favor of whom), whether it was a class …

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Tesla and Trump: The Top PACER Documents of 2018

This year we hosted legal documents from the most important cases in the country. Many of these documents are of historical significance, like the sentencing memos for Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor, and Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer. Others are less important, but still popular, like the SEC taking Elon Musk to task for making materially false statements about Tesla.

Whatever the case though, without exception, the top ten downloaded documents have to do, in one form or another, with either Tesla or Trump.

Here are the top ten downloaded legal documents from the RECAP Archive in 2018:

  1. MOTION to Revoke or Revise Order of Pretrial Release from U.S. v. Paul Manafort

  2. Class Action Complaint from Doe v. The Trump Corporation


  4. Answer to Complaint from Tesla v. Martin Tripp

  5. Government’s Submission in Support of its Breech Determination from U.S. v. Paul Manafort

  6. Sentencing Memorandum from U.S. v. Michael Flynn

  7. ORDER from Democratic National Committee v. The Russian Federation

    This is a fax in Russian and English from the “Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation” claiming immunity from the lawsuit.

  8. Sentencing …

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Responding to GDPR “Right to Erasure” Requests

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a sweeping new data protection and privacy law out of the EU. One of the things the GDPR includes is the ability of EU citizens to send “Right to Erasure” requests to websites, asking that those websites remove content that might be private. Recently, we received one of these requests from our domain registrar asking that we remove a court document from our database on CourtListener. It appears that this is a growing problem for other legal publishers too, with techdirt doing a write up of the issue late last week:

GDPR is a major development in the regulation of the Internet. It includes protections for individuals and a variety of regulations that apply to service providers like us. When GDPR went into effect, we were easily able to comply with its numerous privacy regulations because we were already being extremely conservative about who we shared data with and how much data we collected (see our privacy policy for details). For us, adopting compatible procedures with the GDPR just meant a few tweaks …

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Uploading PACER Dockets and Oral Argument Recordings to the Internet Archive


Internet Archive Logo

At Free Law Project, we collect a lot of legal information. In our RECAP initiative, we collect (or are donated) around one hundred thousand items from PACER every day. Separately, in our collection of oral argument recordings, we have gathered more than 1.4 million minutes of legal recordings — more than anywhere else on the web. All of this content comes from a variety of sources, and we merge it all together to make a searchable collection of PACER dockets and a huge archive of oral argument recordings.

Part of our mission at Free Law Project is to share this information and to ensure its long-term distribution and preservation. A great way to do that is to give it to a neutral third …

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Announcing PACER Docket Alerts for Journalists, Lawyers, Researchers, and the Public

Make Alerts Now

Today we are thrilled to announce the general availability of PACER Docket Alerts on CourtListener.com. Once enabled, a docket alert will send you an email whenever there is a new filing in a case in PACER. We started CourtListener in 2010 as a circuit court monitoring tool, and we could not be more excited to continue expanding on those roots with this powerful new tool.

The best way to get started with Docket Alerts is to just make one. Try loading a popular case like U.S. v. Manafort or The District of Columbia v. Trump. Once the case is open, just press the “Get Alerts” button near the top. Then, just wait for your first alert.

We believe PACER Docket Alerts will be a valuable resource to journalists, researchers, lawyers, and the public as they grapple with staying up to date with the latest PACER filings.

Our goal with docket alerts is to make them as simple as possible to use. Once you have found a case you are interested in, a single click is all it takes to turn on an alert for that docket. From then on, we will send you an email …

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An Overview of Free Law Project

A few weeks ago I had the privilege and the pleasure of speaking at the Michigan Association of Law Librarians (MichALL) annual conference. The talk I gave was an overview of Free Law Project and all of our projects, initiatives, and advocacy. Here are the slides from that presentation.

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The Next Version of RECAP is Now Live

The original RECAP extension for Firefox was launched eight years ago. Today we launch an all new version. Since the original launch in 2009, we’ve kept the system running smoothly, added a Chrome extension, and — with your help — collected and shared information about tens of millions of PACER documents.

Today we’re announcing the future of RECAP. If you’re an existing Firefox or Chrome user, you should automatically get this update over the next 24 hours. If you’re a new user, just learning about RECAP, you can find links for Firefox or Chrome on the right, and you can learn more on the RECAP homepage.

As this new system rolls out, these are the big changes:

  1. As you’re using PACER, the extensions will stop providing links to the Internet Archive, and will instead provide links to CourtListener and the RECAP Archive, where dockets and documents are fully text searchable.

  2. Links to CourtListener will be available very soon after an upload from PACER is complete — possibly within seconds or minutes. This has been the most-requested enhancement we’ve heard over the years, and we’re really happy to be bringing this …

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