Announcing the Aaron Swartz Memorial Grants

Last week, our community lost Aaron Swartz. We are still reeling. Aaron was a fighter for openness and freedom, and many people have been channeling their grief into positive actions for causes that were close to Aaron’s heart. One of these people is Aaron Greenspan, creator of the open-data site Plainsite and the Think Computer Foundation. He has established a generous set of grants to be awarded to the first person (or group) that develops the following upgrades to RECAP, our court record liberation system. RECAP would not exist without the work of Aaron Swartz.

Three grants are being made available related to RECAP. Each grant is worth $5,000.00:

  1. Grant 1: Develop and release a version of RECAP for the Google Chrome browser that matches the current Firefox browser extension functionality
  2. Grant 2: Develop and release a version of RECAP for Internet Explorer that matches the current Firefox browser extension functionality
  3. Grant 3: Update the Firefox browser extension to capture appellate court documents, and update the RECAP server code to parse them and respond appropriately to browser extension requests

For more details, see The Aaron Swartz Memorial Grants. If you are interested, you must register by the …

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RECAP Featured in XRDS Magazine

XRDS Magazine recently ran an article by Steve Schultze and Harlan Yu entitled Using Software to Liberate U.S. Case Law. The article describes the motivation behind RECAP, and outlines the state of public access to electronic court records.

Using PACER is the only way for citizens to obtain electronic records from the Courts. Ideally, the Courts would publish all of their records online, in bulk, in order to allow any private party to index and re-host all of the documents, or to build new innovative services on top of the data. But while this would be relatively cheap for the Courts to do, they haven’t done so, instead choosing to limit “open” access.

[…]

Since the first release, RECAP has gained thousands of users, and the central repository contains more than 2.3 million documents across 400,000 federal cases. If you were to purchase these documents from scratch from PACER, it would cost you nearly $1.5 million. And while our collection still pales in comparison to the 500 million documents purportedly in the PACER system, it contains many of the most-frequently accessed documents the public is searching for.

[…]

As with many issues, it all comes down to …

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Schultze and Lee on RECAP at NYLS

On February 15, Steve and Tim spoke at New York Law School on “PACER, RECAP, and Free Law.” Video of the event is below:

[![]({filename}/images/recap/20110215_Lee_Schultze_RECAP_NYLS.png) ](https://recap.s3.amazonaws.com/20110215_Lee_Schultze_RECAP_NYLS.mp4)
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RECAP Extension 0.8 Beta Released

We are proud to announce beta version 0.8 of RECAP.

This release of RECAP fixes an issue introduced by the newest version of PACER, which has been deployed to several district courts. We’d like to thank the users that brought this issue to our attention and also encourage all RECAP users to contact us if you notice any irregularities in the future. Each district court operates their own version of PACER, so there are often small differences in code which can affect the way that RECAP operates.

In addition, we’ve added a feature that will allow CM/ECF users to more conveniently contribute documents to the RECAP archive. A substantial number of our users are attorneys who have a separate “ECF” login as well as a standard PACER account. Many of these users find it easy to download and pay for PACER documents while logged into the ECF system, but previous versions of RECAP would not upload these documents to the shared archive. Version 0.8 changes this behavior, allowing ECF users to contribute these documents to the RECAP archive.

When we released RECAP over a year ago, we intentionally disabled the extension when it detected an …

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RECAP Extension 0.7 Beta Released

We are proud to announce beta version 0.7 of RECAP. This release adds support for Firefox 4 beta, for those of you living on the cutting edge.

We’ve also added a feature requested by our users. Before this release, the only way to see if RECAP had any free documents for a particular case was to purchase and examine the docket report for that case. In version 0.7, RECAP will notify you before you run a docket report if there is already free archived docket available. On the docket query page for a case that has archived information, you should see a box appear at the bottom of your screen. Clicking on that link will take you to RECAP’s summary page, which includes any docket information we have on the case as well as links to any documents we may have. Here’s an example of what you should see:

Visual of new RECAP
              feature

Version 0.7 also fixes a number of bugs, both minor and major. Thanks to a few extremely helpful users, we were able to fix a problem that prevented RECAP from working correctly behind certain types of proxy servers. Users behind a corporate proxy or firewall …

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RECAP Firefox Search Plugin

One of the ideas behind the RECAP project is that once government data is made accessible in a free and open format, people will find useful new ways to search and process that data. We have heard from many folks looking to do interesting things with the documents archived by RECAP, and last year a group of students built the searchable web-based RECAP Archive. Today, Brian Carver shared a simple tool he built on top of that — a Firefox RECAP search plugin. You know that little search box in the top-right corner of Firefox? If you install his plugin you can choose the RECAP Archive as one of the search engines in the drop-down menu, so that finding free federal court documents is even easier.

Pretty cool!

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Assessing PACER’s Access Barriers

The U.S. Courts recently conducted a year-long assessment of their Electronic Public Access program which included a survey of PACER users. While the results of the assessment haven’t been formally published, the Third Branch Newsletter has an interview with Bankruptcy Judge J. Rich Leonard that discusses a few high-level findings of the survey. Judge Leonard has been heavily involved in shaping the evolution of PACER since its inception twenty years ago and continues to lead today.

The survey covered a wide range of PACER users—“the courts, the media, litigants, attorneys, researchers, and bulk data collectors”—and Judge Leonard claims they found “a remarkably high level of satisfaction”: around 80% of those surveyed were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the service.

If we compare public access before we had PACER to where we are now, there is clearly much success to celebrate. But the key question is not only whether current users are satisfied with the service but also whether PACER is reaching its entire audience of potential users. Are there artificial obstacles preventing potential PACER users—who admittedly would be difficult to poll—from using the service? The satisfaction statistic may be fine at face value, assuming …

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New Search and Browsing Interface for the RECAP Archive

Update: We wound down this version of the archive, but we replaced it with something much better.

One of the most-requested RECAP features is a better web interface to the archive. Today we’re releasing an experimental system for searching and browsing, at archive.recapthelaw.org. There are also a couple of extra features that we’re eager to get feedback on. For example, you can subscribe to an RSS feed for any case in order to get updates when new documents are added to the archive. We’ve also included some basic tagging features that let anybody add tags to any case. We’re sure that there will be bugs to be fixed or improvements that can be made.

The first version of the system was built by an enterprising team of students in Professor Ed Felten’s “Civic Technologies” course: Jen King, Brett Lullo, Sajid Mehmood, and Daniel Mattos Roberts. Dhruv Kapadia has done many of the subsequent updates. The links from the RECAP Archive pages point to files on our gracious host, the Internet Archive.

See, for example, the RECAP Archive page for United States of America v. Arizona, State of, et al. This is the Arizona …

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More RECAP Events

On Tuesday June 22, Harlan Yu will be on Capitol Hill speaking to Congressional Staffers at an event sponsored by the Advisory Committee on Transparency. The event is called Transparency Made Easy: How to Make the Government More Open and Accountable. It is open only to staffers, but the Sunlight Foundation will post video of the event afterward.

On Friday the 25th, both Harlan and Steve will be at the 20th Annual CALI Conference in Camden NJ, explaining how “Capturing PACER for Open Access” can benefit the cause of legal education.

Update: The video and other materials from the Transparency Caucus are now available. You can watch Harlan’s remarks below:

[![]({filename}/images/recap/Harlan_Yu-Transparency_Advisory_Committee.png)](http://recap.s3.amazonaws.com/Harlan_Yu-Transparency_Advisory_Committee.mp4)
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New PACER Fee Data, RECAP Appearances This Week

This week, RECAP team member Steve Schultze released new data on how PACER fees are collected and spent in a post entitled, “What Does It Cost to Provide Electronic Public Access to Court Records?” He will discuss this new data and other aspects of public access to federal case materials at a Law.gov event in DC tomorrow (live streaming video). Steve will also be on a panel at the Virginia State Bar Association’s annual meeting on Thursday, speaking about how the federal electronic filing experience can inform state efforts. That same day, RECAP developer Dhruv Kapadia will be at the Law.gov event at Harvard.

There will be more RECAP developments and public appearances in the coming weeks.

Update: The video for the Law.Gov Event at the Center for American Progress is now posted on their site. You can watch the excerpt of Steve’s remarks below:

Video of Steve

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RECAP, The Press, and Judicial Transparency

USA Today just posted an article covering the debate over Arizona’s new immigration law. The article is essentially a roundup of relevant coverage, comments, and the wave of pending lawsuits. It is an example of the core activities of journalism in action — namely information gathering, synthesis, and dissemination on issues relevant to the public. The article is also notable because it embeds the actual text of a complaint from one of the lawsuits filed yesterday. This document came from PACER.

Some time yesterday, a RECAP user also downloaded that document, thus contributing it to the public archive. You can see the docket and document here. As a result, anyone can freely search for, download, or re-post the document. People can also follow the progress of the case (assuming RECAP users continue to download new documents as they are posted). The fact that this is all happening automatically is an exciting success for RECAP.

However, that success is inherently limited. Although the system worked in this particular case, there are literally millions of other cases that have not been similarly liberated from the PACER paywall. Many of these are highly relevant to American citizens, but they are not of broad …

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RECAP Documents Now More Searchable Via Internet Archive

We recently made a small change to the way that documents uploaded by RECAP users are made available on the Internet Archive. Until today, the Internet Archive had served primarily as a bulk hosting provider, without much ability to browse or search the archive. This was enforced in two ways: First, it was not possible to search for documents using the Internet Archive’s search tools. Second, external search engines were prevented from indexing the site. We decided to do this in order to be especially cautious with respect to privacy concerns that we have previously discussed.

Since we launched, we have spent a great deal of time examining these issues, and we decided to make a small incremental step in making the documents more findable without (yet) allowing in-depth full-text search of all documents. We have enabled Internet Archive indexing, as well as search engine indexing, for the case summary pages on the Internet Archive. That means, for example, that the relatively limited information on the AT&T v. Hepting case summary page is now searchable.

You can find this case through the Internet Archive search engine by doing a query like this: http://www.archive.org/search.php …

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RECAP Extension 0.6 Beta Released

The Mozilla Foundation released version 3.6 of Firefox today, and we’re proud to release the corresponding version of the RECAP extension, beta version 0.6. In addition to Firefox 3.6 compatibility, we’ve also thrown in a new feature suggested by our users: the option to save documents using filenames that we describe as “lawyer style” in contrast to the “Internet Archive style” we’ve traditionally used. For example, rather than saving a document as “gov.uscourts.cand.204881.46.0.pdf,” you can now configure the extension to store a document as “N.D.Cal._3-08-cv-03251_46_0.pdf.” Those who prefer the traditional filenames are free to continue using those as well.

We’ve also improved our docket-parsing code, allowing us to extract more metadata from court dockets. New fields we’re now scraping include “Assigned to”, “Referred to ” , “Cause”, “Nature of Suit”, “Jury Demand”, “Jurisdiction”, and “Demand.” We also scrape information about parties, including names, contact information, and attorneys. You can see a good example here (to choose a case at random).

If you’re an existing Firefox user, Firefox periodically checks for updates to extensions and should automatically fetch the new version of the RECAP …

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RECAP in the Columbia Science and Technology Law Review

’s place at the heart or the periphery of the movement remains to be seen. Like any crowdsourcing application, RECAP’s usefulness increases as more people use it. Yet PACER’s prime users are large, bill-paying law firms, which tend to be wary about adopting new technology and have little incentive to contribute documents they paid for to a free database.

“Success” for RECAP may not be mainstream adoption, however. Merely by creating the working plugin and calling attention to the problem of restricted access to court documents, CITP has advanced the cause of reforming and opening up access to PACER. That alone is “Turning PACER around.”

One point this misses is that using RECAP can directly reduce firms’ PACER fees. It’s true, of course, that most firms pass these costs along to their clients. However, in today’s economic climate, clients are increasingly pressing their law firms for cost savings. Adopting RECAP is a painless way for firms to demonstrate cost-consciousness. And the cost savings from RECAP adoption will only get bigger as RECAP’s user base continues to grow. So while we think judicial transparency is reason enough to use RECAP, installing RECAP is good for every …

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Google Project Shows Value of Open Judicial Records

We’re excited to see Google has unveiled a dramatic expansion of Google Scholar to include Supreme Court decisions going back to the 18th century, lower federal court decisions since the 1920s, and state Supreme Court and appellate decisions going back to the 1950s. They’ve done an impressive job with automated parsing of legal citations, transforming them into hyperlinks and allowing Google to do automated analysis of case similarity.

This type of project was precisely what we had in mind when some of us wrote “Government Data and the Invisible Hand” last year. The judiciary may be the foundation of a free society, but it’s not especially good at building websites or search engines. By making public records easily available for re-publications by third parties, the judiciary (and the other branches of government) can enable private parties to dramatically expand public access to public information.

In this case, the state and federal courts haven’t made it easy to download bulk data, so Google had to get the information from third parties. Google is a big company with significant resources at its disposal. But in an ideal world, it wouldn’t take the resources of a large company …

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RECAP Media Recap

Last week, we got our first major media coverage from across the pond, as the Guardian gave us a generous write-up. They call RECAP “an ingenious twist on peer to peer networking” and write that “since the system launched in August, legal circles have been buzzing with support for the idea.”

Meanwhile, RECAP continues to generate interest from the legal profession. Earlier this month, RECAP’s own Tim Lee spoke to a group of New Jersey lawyers about how the software can save their clients money while expanding access to the public domain. And Arizona Attorney magazine has an in-depth article about RECAP and the debate over public access. They write that “there appears to be nothing illegal about the use of RECAP by those who are paying PACER users” (we agree). And they conclude that we’ve “carefully thought through the ethical implications and goals of the program.” We like to think so. The December issue of Virginia Lawyer magazine profiles RECAP, describing in detail the efforts so far to liberate PACER documents.

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RECAP in Minnesota Lawyer

Word about RECAP continues to spread through the legal profession. The latest issue of Minnesota Lawyer covers the case of a Minneapolis lawyer who was sanctioned for inadvertently including the Social Security numbers and dates of birth of dozens of individuals in court documents, when the rules of civil procedure mandate that only the last four digits of a Social Security number and the year of birth be disclosed in documents filed with the court.

The article then mentions RECAP as one reason for attorneys to be careful about redaction when they’re filing court documents:

Friedemann said that concern over the publication of sensitive information has been elevated by recent Web programs like RECAP, which has made it easier to access public court filings.

RECAP automatically uploads all PACER documents a user is viewing onto an archive maintained by the non-profit group Internet Archive. When the next RECAP user attempts to view a PACER document that has already been archived, RECAP automatically uploads the copy to prevent that user from paying for those materials. The system allows users of PACER to slowly create a secondary archive of these public documents that can be accessed for free.

Friedemann explained that …

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An Effort to Define the Ideal “Law.gov”

A group of academics has been convened by Public.Resource.Org in order to define recommendations for a proposed federal government site: law.gov. The group will study the feasibility of creating the equivalent of a data.gov for legal materials. The process will define a concrete path forward forward for the government. Specifically, it will deliver:

  • Detailed technical specifications for markup, authentication, bulk access, and other aspects of a distributed registry.
  • A bill of lading defining which materials should be made available on the system.
  • A detailed business plan and budget for the organization in the government running the new system.
  • Sample enabling legislation.
  • An economic impact statement detailing the effect on federal spending and economic activity.
  • Procedures for auditing materials on the system to ensure authenticity.

Ed Felten, Executive Director of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy (which also produced RECAP), is one of the co-conveners.

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