The Right to Read Anonymously

In 1996, in the Connecticut Law Review, legal scholar Julie Cohen wrote what has become a landmark article in Internet Law entitled, “A Right to Read Anonymously: A Closer Look at “Copyright Management” In Cyberspace.” She began by stating,

A fundamental assumption underlying our discourse about the activities of reading, thinking, and speech is that individuals in our society are guaranteed the freedom to form their thoughts and opinions in privacy, free from intrusive oversight by governmental or private entities.

Cohen notes that, in the past, our right to read anonymously has been protected by libraries and librarians. See, for example, the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read statement, adopted in 1953. Our American experience has generally been that one is able to walk into a public library, take almost any book off the shelf, sit down, and read without ever identifying oneself or asking anyone’s permission. Most libraries, as vigorous defenders of reader privacy, only maintain information about which books you check out until you return them and then they destroy any record connecting your identity to the books checked out. It was, in 1996, the growing prevalence of electronic dissemination of information and technologies to monitor …

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Free Law Project and University of Baltimore to Collaborate to Create Supreme Court Doctrinal Maps

An early prototype of the new version.

An early prototype of the new version.

Free Law Project is excited to announce that over the next several months we will be collaborating with the University of Baltimore and Assistant Professor of Law, Colin Starger, to build a web-based version of his Supreme Court Mapping Project, a software-driven effort to visualize Supreme Court doctrine. Currently a desktop software tool, the collaboration will move this functionality to the web, incorporating it directly into Free Law Project’s CourtListener platform.

Once incorporated into CourtListener, users will be able to create visualizations of how different cases cite each other, including plotting them against variables from the Supreme Court Database such as whether the case had a liberal or conservative outcome, and the minority/majority votes of the justices. Using the CourtListener citation API, Colin and his partner Darren Kumasawa have done a lot of work in this area already, laying a great foundation for this project.

The current design The current design

We hope that within a few months our new service will go live, and that teachers, librarians, and researchers will be able to create great new visualizations of Supreme Court doctrine. If you’ve been watching Colin and Darren’s work over on …

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AI and Law Call for Papers

Passing along this call for papers:

Special Issue of Artificial Intelligence and Law in Honor of Carole Hafner: call for papers

Earlier this year, Carole Hafner, a key figure in the origin and development of AI and Law, died. A tribute to Carole can be found at http://www.iaail.org/?q=page/memorials. A special issue of Artificial Intelligence and Law (which she co-founded) will be published in 2016, focusing on Carole’s main research topics: semantic retrieval and the procedural, temporal and teleological aspects of reasoning with legal cases.

In her long academic career, Carole Hafner made contributions in a number of areas of AI and Law. Her 1978 Ph.D. dissertation was a pioneering effort in semantic information retrieval of legal cases; ahead of its time, it supplied what would now be called ontologies for describing case law domains and cases, a retrieval language, and methods for retrieving, from a corpus of a hundred cases, cases providing: examples of which a specified concept is (or is not) true, criteria for knowing that the concept does (or does not) hold, or the consequences of the presence or absence of the concept in a particular case. Today, developments in …

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Knight Foundation to Support OpenJudiciary.org

Free Law Project is pleased to announce that its OpenJudiciary.org has been selected as a winner of the Knight News Challenge on Elections, an initiative of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The new project will make judicial elections more transparent for journalists and researchers by creating online profiles of judges. Profiles will show campaign contributions, judicial opinions, and biographies.

The project aims to fill an information gap by helping citizens understand and meaningfully participate in judicial elections,” said Chris Barr, Knight Foundation director for media innovation, who leads the Prototype Fund.

A site such as OpenJudiciary.org is needed because big money is infiltrating the judicial election process. Academic research has shown that election years correlate with judges handing down harsher sentences, even an increased frequency of death sentences.

The money in state judicial elections appears to cause not only a public perception of partiality (judges being bought), but also real damage to judicial impartiality as judges are forced to fundraise from the attorneys and litigants that appear in their courts.

Free Law Project co-founder Brian Carver said, “It is currently extremely difficult for voters, journalists, or academics to investigate a judge’s past decisions and …

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What Should be Done About the PACER Problem?

This is the third in a series of posts about PACER:

  1. What is the “PACER Problem”
  2. Why Should Congress Care About PACER?
  3. What Should be Done About the PACER Problem?

Let’s outline what you should do, what Congress should do, and what the courts should do:

Uncle Sam (pointing finger)

By James Montgomery Flagg - Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

What you should do about the PACER Problem

As we mentioned in our first post, Carl Malamud of Public.Resource.Org has written a memorandum detailing a three-pronged approach that average individuals can take to address the PACER Problem: Litigation, Supplication, and Agitation. Let’s consider each.

Litigation

It’s probably not fruitful if everyone runs out and sues the courts over PACER. Carl’s memorandum sketches many of the challenges that such cases would face. There are people thinking about this carefully, however, and so if you believe you are particularly likely to have standing, or have other resources to contribute to such an effort, feel free to get in touch with us and we can direct you to the folks having these conversations.

Supplication

Carl’s memorandum also explains that Public.Resource.Org is asking for a fee exemption from the courts …

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Why Should Congress Care About PACER?

This is the second of three short posts on PACER:

There are several reasons that Congress should care about PACER:

  1. The Courts are ignoring the law that Congess passed. In our tricameral system of government, it is the Congress that holds the power of the purse. The E-Government Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-347) provides with respect to PACER fees that the “Judicial Conference may, only to the extent necessary, prescribe reasonable fees… to reimburse expenses incurred in providing these services.” So, they can only charge for public access services such as PACER if those fees are used to cover the operating expenses for those same services. In an accompanying Senate report, Congress noted that it “…intends to encourage the Judicial Conference to move… to a fee structure in which this information is freely available to the greatest extent possible.” 107. S. Rept. 174.

    However, figuring out exactly how much revenue PACER generates and how much it costs to operate is such an overcomplicated task that only one person has ever tried to do it. In 2010, Steve Schultze, the then …

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What is the “PACER Problem”?

In January of 2015, Carl Malamud of Public.Resource.Org posted a memorandum detailing problems with the federal PACER system that is supposed to provide Public Access to Court Electronic Records and outlining a three-pronged approach for addressing these problems this year.

More detail is available in the memorandum or in the video we made last fall, “Using PACER: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

However, this is the first of three shorter posts where we will try to address:

What is the “PACER problem”?

We define the “PACER Problem” as:

As a result of various problems with the PACER system, the average member of the public has no meaningful access to federal court records. This is the “PACER Problem.”

These “various problems” with the PACER system include:

  1. PACER fees are too high, especially in the case of surprise charges for searches where the total charge for the search is not known until after you have incurred the charge. Using PACER’s search functionality is terrifying. You have no way of knowing what you will be charged until after you have incurred …

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Senator Leahy Wants PACER Documents Back Online

Last Friday, it was reported by the Washington Post and Ars Technica that Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, had sent a letter to Judge Bates, the head of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AO), urging the AO to put back online the recently-removed PACER documents from five courts. I had not seen the full letter posted anywhere yet, so I present it here.

Free Law Project agrees with Senator Leahy that taking these documents offline represents “a dramatic step backwards” and that the Courts’ currently proposed work-around represents “a troubling increase in costs…” We hope the AO will be open to restoring online access to these documents and stand ready to help make these documents freely available online for the public were that agreeable to the AO.

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The Importance of Backups

Burning of the Library of Alexandria

The Burning of the Library of Alexandria, an illustration from ‘Hutchinsons History of the Nations’, c. 1910.

At least since the destruction of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, the world has known the importance of having a backup. The RECAP archive of documents from PACER is a partial backup of documents taken offline by five federal courts. It is impossible to determine how complete a backup we have, because the problem with missing documents is that you cannot even determine that they are missing without a complete list of what used to be available. No such lists exist for the documents from these five courts.

But as coverage of this surprising and unprecedented action by PACER officials continues (see techdirt), the BBC has an article that takes an interesting approach by pointing out some of the landmark civil rights cases taken off PACER through this action.

The BBC mentions the case Ricci v. DeStefano which was decided at the Second Circuit while  Sonia Sotomayor was a Circuit Judge. Sotomayor, now a Supreme Court Justice, had her role in deciding the case closely scrutinized during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Many who dug in to Sotomayor’s background during those hearings …

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Free Law Project Joins Request for Access to Offline PACER Documents

A recent announcement on the federal PACER website indicated that PACER documents from five courts prior to certain dates (pre-2010 for two courts, pre-2012 for one court, etc.) would no longer be available on PACER. The announcement was reported widely by news organizations, including the Washington Post and Ars Technica. The announcement has now been changed to explain, “As a result of these architectural changes, the locally developed legacy case management systems in the five courts listed below are now incompatible with PACER; therefore, the judiciary is no longer able to provide electronic access to the closed cases on those systems.” See a screenshot of the earlier announcement without this explanation:

Original PACER announcement

Original PACER announcement

This morning, Free Law Project signed on to five letters from the non-profit, Public.Resource.Org, headed by Carl Malamud, asking the Chief Judge of each of these five courts to provide us with access to these newly offline documents. The letter proposes that we be provided access in order to conduct privacy research, particularly with respect to the presence of social security numbers in court records, as Public.Resource.Org has done previously in several contexts. In addition we offer to host all the documents …

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Using PACER — What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

If you only watch one video about using the federal Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system, make it this video by Free Law Project’s Brian Carver: “Using PACER: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?”

The video provides a demonstration of what a regular member of the public might experience trying to find a copy of a recent newsworthy federal district court opinion on the court’s website and through the federal PACER system. This example was genuinely chosen because Brian himself had heard about a recent newsworthy case out of the District Court for the District of Maryland. In fact, we’re fairly sure that other examples might cast these sites in an even worse light.

Free Law Project believes that Congress should provide adequate funding to the federal courts so that the financial argument for PACER’s fees would be moot and everyone could agree that public access to court records should be free. But even in the absence of that, we conclude from this demonstration that the non-document related fees in PACER for search results and reports that are charged without an interstitial warning of their magnitude are particularly onerous and should be abolished. The courts …

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Free Law Project Co-Founders Named to Fastcase 50 for 2014

Last week legal publisher Fastcase included Free Law Project co-founders, Brian Carver and Michael Lissner on the company’sannual list of “Fastcase 50” award recipients. As their press release explains, “The Fastcase 50 award recognizes 50 of the smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries, and leaders in the law.”

Michael and I are humbled by and grateful for this recognition. We’re especially thrilled to see individuals we have worked with included on this year’s list, such as:

  • Frank Bennett, who created the Free Law Ferret, adapting some of CourtListener’s citation-finding code to JavaScript and enabling users of the extension to find citations on any website and then get the documents from CourtListener.
  • Jake Heller, CEO of CaseText, whose team there has frequently been a helpful sounding board when Mike and I are thinking through the interesting questions that arise when trying to put useful legal research tools on the web.
  • Colin Starger, of the University of Baltimore School of Law, with whom we’ve had great conversations about citations, metadata, and bulk downloads, not topics of conversation that everyone has as much experience with as Colin!
  • David Zvenyach, General Counsel to the Council of the District …
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Our RECAP partnership with Princeton University’s CITP

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 …

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LVI 2014 Call for Abstracts

The Law via the Internet (LVI) 2014 conference will be held this year September 30 - October 1 in Nairobi, Kenya. The theme will be “The Impact of open access to legal information: Bridging the gap between accessibility and usefulness.” The call for abstracts is now available from the LVI 2014 website.

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CourtListner’s REST API Featured on Programmable Web

Yesterday Mark Boyd published a great story about the CourtListener API on Programmable Web. Mark talked to several of the API’s early adopters and really learned what the issues are and how people are addressing them. Thanks to all those quoted in the story for taking the time to talk with Mark about the CourtListener REST API. We’re excited about how you all are already using the API and hope to continue improving it. (There’s nothing like people hitting your website thousands of times a day to shake loose hard-to-find bugs…and we’ve had some of that too and hope to get any and all bugs resolved ASAP!)

I particularly like Waldo Jaquith‘s sentiment quoted in the article that 24 months from now we will find it quaint that anyone found this interesting. I sure hope so! That will mean we’ve made many advances and the thought of not having an API for United States case law will seem unimaginable. Unfortunately, free programmatic access—even digital access—to U.S. case law has been not much more than a fanciful dream for a long time in the legal technology community. For years we’ve …

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Free Law Project Calls for License-Free Government Data

Today a group of non-proft public interest organizations have released updated Best-Practices Language for Making Government Data “License-Free.” Free Law Project is glad to sign on to their statement and to support the effort to assist government agencies in making clear that their data is free of copyright or contractual restrictions and can be re-used freely.

The details can be found at http://theunitedstates.io/licensing/ See also Josh Tauberer’s blog post announcing this release.

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Free Law Project Joins Free Access to Law Movement

Free Law Project is proud to announce that it has been officially accepted as a member of the Free Access to Law Movement. FALM is a consortium of non-profit institutions dedicated to providing free and open access to the world’s law. Its members subscribe to the Declaration on Free Access to Law.

The Declaration explains in part that,

  • Public legal information from all countries and international institutions is part of the common heritage of humanity. Maximising access to this information promotes justice and the rule of law;
  • Public legal information is digital common property and should be accessible to all on a non-profit basis and free of charge;
  • Organisations such as legal information institutes have the right to publish public legal information and the government bodies that create or control that information should provide access to it so that it can be published by other parties.

We have been operating consistently with the principles laid out in the Declaration for some time. Finding ourselves in complete agreement with the Declaration on Free Access to Law, we are excited now to make it official and to formally join with our colleagues around the globe engaged in these endeavors.

FALM members …

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