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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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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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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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>' \
    https://www.courtlistener.com/api/rest/v3/recap-fetch/

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

  3. CONSENT MOTION FOR ENTRY OF FINAL JUDGMENT from SEC v. Elon Musk

  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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Uploading PACER Dockets and Oral Argument Recordings to the Internet Archive

Highlights

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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We Have Every Free PACER Opinion on CourtListener.com

Free Opinion Report Dropdown

At Free Law Project, we have gathered millions of court documents over the years, but it’s with distinct pride that we announce that we have now completed our biggest crawl ever. After nearly a year of work, and with support from the U.S. Department of Labor and Georgia State University, we have collected every free written order and opinion that is available in PACER. To accomplish this we used PACER’s “Written Opinion Report,” which provides many opinions for free.

This collection contains approximately 3.4 million orders and opinions from approximately 1.5 million federal district and bankruptcy court cases dating back to 1960. More than four hundred thousand of these documents were scanned and required OCR, amounting to nearly two million pages of text extraction that we completed for this project.

All of the documents amassed are available for search in the RECAP Archive of PACER documents and via our APIs. New opinions will be downloaded every night to keep the collection up to date.

The RECAP Archive now has more than twenty million documents.

With this additional collection, the RECAP Archive now has information about more than twenty million PACER documents.

As a backup and permanent repository, we are continuing our partnership with the Internet …

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More Details on the PACER Vulnerability We Shared with the Administrative Office of the Courts

PACER Logo

PACER/ECF is a system of 204 websites that is run by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AO) for the management of federal court documents. The main function of PACER/ECF is for lawyers and the public to upload and download court documents such as briefs, memos, orders, and opinions.

In February we reported that we disclosed a major vulnerability in PACER/ECF to the AO. The proof of concept and disclosure/resolution timeline are available here.

We are pleased to share that this issue is now properly addressed, and that we are now able to report more details about it. Throughout the process of researching, disclosing, and resolving this vulnerability, the AO has been prompt and professional, something that we greatly appreciate given the considerable constraints and complexities they are facing. However, despite their skill in dealing with this issue, after discovering it we have lingering concerns about the security of PACER/ECF on the whole.

In this post, we discuss three topics. First, we outline what the vulnerability was and how to identify if you were a victim of it. Second, we discuss why the vulnerability is troubling for a system of PACER/ECF’s size and …

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A Million Minutes of Oral Arguments

Today, we’re celebrating another milestone. We now have more than a million minutes of oral argument audio in CourtListener.com’s oral argument archive. All of this audio is available in our search engine, APIs, podcasts, and our website.

A million minutes of oral argument audio is a lot, so it helps to contextualize it. This is nearly 700 days of continuous oral argument audio from nearly thirty thousand cases. Put another way, listening to this entire collection would take as long as watching every episode of The Simpsons 76 times.

We have had a lot of success with our oral argument archive, and we’re thrilled to be able to provide it at no cost, despite its size growing every day.

In the coming months we will continue expanding this collection in two key ways. First, we plan to begin automatically generating transcripts for audio files so that you can get an email alert any time certain words are said in court. Second, we plan to continue expanding our coverage so that it includes more state courts, and so that it includes all of the federal courts that have recordings available.

Between these two initiatives, we will continue …

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A Complete Chronology of PACER Fees and Policies

Today, the PACER system contains millions of court filings for the federal district, circuit, and bankruptcy courts, most of which are sold at a dime per page with a three dollar cap per document. But content in PACER was not always priced this way, and indeed the PACER system goes back all the way to the early 1990’s, before computers were generally connected to the Internet.

Fees for using PACER are set by the Judicial Conference of the Administrative Office of the Courts, which scrupulously keeps notes from its bi-annual proceedings going back to its creation in 1922. In this post, we have gone through all of the relevant proceedings, and we present what we believe is a complete history of PACER fees and changes.

During the 27 year history outlined below, technology has changed significantly, and the Administrative Office of the Courts has done its best to keep up. Over the years, PACER has offered a variety of ways to get court information. These include a 1-900 number, a search service available via a regular phone call, the ability to connect your own computer directly to the courts’, and the websites that we know today.

But regardless of …

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We’ve Added Thousands More Citations to Historical Supreme Court Opinions

We have a small update to share today, as we’ve wrapped up adding thousands of historical Supreme Court citations to our collection. These are the original citations for the Supreme Court from 1754 to 1874, from before when the United States Reports had begun. Previously we had many of these citations, but as of today we can say we have historical citations for our entire SCOTUS collection.

For the unfamiliar, Supreme Court citations were originally named after the Reporter of Decisions for the Supreme Court from the time the opinion was published. For example, the first person to do this was Alexander Dallas, and his citations start at 1 Dall. 1 (1754), and go forward to 4 Dall. 446 (1806). After Dallas came a long line of other reporters, each of whom named their series of books after himself until 1875, when congress began appropriating money for the full time creation of these reporters and demanded they be called the “United States Reports.”

18 Stat. 204 (1874)

A snapshot of 18 Stat. 204 (1874), which allocated $25,000 to the Supreme Court for printing (about $557,100 today).

At that time, 91 U.S. 1 was the first case to be born with …

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Why We Are Downloading all Free Opinions and Orders from PACER

PACER Logo

Today we are launching a new project to download all of the free opinions and orders that are available on PACER. Since we do not want to unduly impact PACER, we are doing this process slowly, giving it several weeks or months to complete, and slowing down if any PACER administrators get in touch with issues.

In this project, we expect to download millions of PDFs, all of which we will add to both the RECAP Archive that we host, and to the Internet Archive, which will serve as a publicly available backup.1 In the RECAP Archive, we will be immediately parsing the contents of all the PDFs as we download them. Once that is complete we will extract the content of scanned documents, as we have done for the rest of the collection.

This project will create an ongoing expense for Free Law Project—hosting this many files costs real money—and so we want to explain two major reasons why we believe this is an important project. The first reason is because there is a monumental value to these documents, and until now they have not been easily available to the public. These documents are a critical …

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Parties, Attorneys, and Firms are Now Searchable in the RECAP Archive

Today we are launching party, attorney, and firm search for the RECAP Archive of PACER documents. This unlocks powerful new ways to do your research.

For example, consider the following queries:

Click any of the above queries to see how they were made.

To use this new feature, type the name of the party or attorney into the fields on the RECAP Archive homepage or in the sidebar to the left of any search results. These boxes also accept advanced query syntax, and there are several new fields that can be queried from the main search box including party, attorney, and firm.

For example, in the main box you can search for attorney:”eric holder”~2 firm:covington. This query shows the cases where the attorney has the word “Eric” within two words of “Holder” (thus allowing his middle name) which were handled at the firm “Covington & Burling”.

Demo of Eric Holder at Covington & Burling

A search for Eric X Holder while …

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Free Law Project has Notified the Administrative Office of the Courts about a Major Security Vulnerability in the PACER/ECF System

Recently, as part of our routine business practices, we discovered what we believe is a major vulnerability in the PACER system of websites that we believe affects both the electronic case filing and public access portals.

At this time, as part of a responsible disclosure process, we have notified the appropriate parties at The Administrative Office of the Courts, the agency that runs PACER. According to industry norms, we have given them a broad 90 day window to resolve the vulnerability.

After the 90 days are up or the issue is resolved, we plan to publish the details of what we discovered, the ramifications of the discovery, and the solution that they have put in place, if any.

Further questions about the vulnerability can be directed to our contact form where you can find our GPG key, if needed.

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