Today Free Law Project announced that it is partnering with Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy to manage the operation and development of the RECAP platform. Most readers here will know that the RECAP platform utilizes free browser extensions to improve the experience of using PACER, the electronic public access system for U.S. federal courts, and crowdsources the creation of a free and open archive of public court records.
I have been frustrated with PACER for a long time: as a member of the public, as a law student, as a litigator, as an academic, and as one trying to build systems for public access to court documents. I’ve been frustrated by the price per page, by the price for searches with no results, by the shocking price for inadvertent searches with thousands of results, by the occasional price for judicial opinions that are supposed to be free, by the price in light of the fact that Congress made clear that the Judicial Conference “may, only to the extent necessary, prescribe reasonable fees… for access to information available through automatic data processing equipment” when it has been demonstrated time and again that PACER revenues grossly exceed the “extent necessary,” and by the 2011 increase in those prices. I’ve been frustrated by the search interface or lack thereof. I’ve wanted, for a very long time, to be able to conduct free full-text searches across the entirety of the PACER database. The research questions I could ask and answer with such a system. Sigh… But most of all, I’ve been frustrated with PACER for a long time because it creates a wall between the public and the law.
So when CITP announced the launch of RECAP in August 2009 I was overjoyed and I became an early adopter. I reported bugs and suggested enhancements on RECAP’s now-defunct “getsatisfaction” community. I told anyone that would listen what a brilliant idea it was to involve everyone in the effort to create a free public archive of these public court records. I felt empowered by the idea that my own browser could become a tool in the effort for greater public access to the law. I got something approximating a crush (techno-crush?) on Steve Schultze, Harlan Yu, Timothy Lee, and Ed Felten, for the brilliance behind this creation. (Please go install the browser extensions if you haven’t already! For Firefox; For Chrome.)
Steve, Harlan, Tim, and others that have worked on RECAP have now all moved on from Princeton to fabulous careers. When Steve and Harlan began discussing with us the idea of Free Law Project taking up the slack created by their busy new adventures, Michael and I were immediately enthusiastic. RECAP is a perfect complement to Free Law Project’s existing efforts. The first version of CourtListener covered only the federal circuit courts and the Supreme Court of the United States. We’ve been working recently to roll out coverage of the courts of last resort in all the states (not quite there yet…) but have largely held off on tackling “the PACER problem” presented by the federal district courts. In part, we knew we could wait on this because RECAP was already addressing it about as well as anyone could. We have long assumed that we would at some point look to merge the RECAP documents with our existing documents, and knew because we focused on different courts, these would be largely complementary sets of documents. Well, the time to tackle that merger has arrived, and in the process we hope to provide a long-term home for RECAP maintenance and improvement.
However, to do everything we envision with RECAP and its existing document archive is going to require additional funding. (You can always donate!) Therefore, we expect in the coming weeks to approach anyone who is known to write large checks with this idea: Support us in creating the largest freely-downloadable collection of court documents that has ever been assembled on the internet, and in the process, help ensure the future of public access to the law’s killer app: RECAP.
We’re looking forward to it.
P.S. Please follow @RECAPtheLaw. We intend to start tweeting there.
See also, Steve Schultze’s post at Freedom to Tinker.