It’s easier than ever to contribute to CourtListener and Free Law Project

Working on complex software with a lot of dependencies can be difficult, and over the years many people have struggled to install and configure all the complex components CourtListener requires. Our previous solution to this was to create and maintain the Free Law Virtual Machine, which allowed people to work in a VM with all the right software installed. Alas, keeping the VM maintained was a real burden and we weren’t the best at it. It fell into decay and without realizing it we informally stopped recommending people use it.

Today we have a new, more modern solution using Vagrant. We’re getting the last of the kinks out of the new system, but already a number of people are using it in their daily process. It has all of the dependencies installed and configured. Best of all, although your code will be running in a virtual machine like before, when you’re using this setup, you still get to use all of your favorite tools on your local machine. If you haven’t used Vagrant before, you’ll find it’s a rather magical experience.

If you’re a contributor to CourtListener it’s definitely worth checking this …

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Our Newest Launch: A SCOTUS Data Viz Tool

We here at Free Law Project are happy to announce the launch of our Supreme Court Citation Network tool. Created in collaboration with the SCOTUS Mapping Project at the University of Baltimore, the tool permits users to create citation networks that represent “lines of cases” in Supreme Court doctrine. With the tool, users can also visualize, analyze, and share the networks they create.

Consider the network above. It was created with the tool and embedded directly into this post. Similar to a YouTube video, you can interact with it, hovering on the nodes to see the full case name, or clicking them to open them in a new tab. Of course, you can also open the visualization in its own page, where you’ll find more detail and analysis.

The visualization leverages Supreme Court Database (Spaeth) to show a surprising fact about the recently departed Justice Scalia: He was a liberal on the Fourth Amendment. The map is anchored by two Scalia opinions in which the supposedly conservative justice sided with an accused marijuana criminal — Kyllo (protecting weed grower from warrantless thermal imaging search) and Jardines (protecting weed grower from warrantless dog sniffing search).

After you’ve created a visualization …

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Some Citation Parsing Statistics

We want to share some quick statistics today. We we just completed running our citation parser across the entire CourtListener collection. If you follow our work, you’ll know that the purpose of the citation parser is to go through every opinion in CourtListener and identify every citation from one opinion to another (such as “410 U.S. 113“). Once identified, the parser looks up the citation and attempts to make a hyperlink between the opinions so that if you see a citation while reading, you can click it to go to the correct place.

As you can imagine, looking up every citation in every opinion in CourtListener can take some time, so we only run our citation finder when we need to. In this case:

  • The process ran continuously for two weeks.
  • It ran a total of 253,872,460 queries against our search engine.
  • It found 25,471,410 citations between opinions.
  • There are about three million opinions currently in CourtListener.

After running the parser, the first stop I like to take is to go and see the search results ordered by citation count. In an upset, Strickland v. Washington, the former leader, has been pushed to third …

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Releasing V3 of the API, Deprecating V1 and V2

This post is one with mixed news, so I’ll start with the good news, which is that version 3.0 of the CourtListener API is now available. It’s a huge improvement over versions 1 and 2:

  • It is now browsable. Go check it out. You can click around the API and peruse the data without doing any programming. At the top of every page there is a button that says Options. Click that button to see all the filtering and complexity that lies behind an API endpoint.
  • It can be sampled without authentication. Previously, if you wanted to use the API, you had to log in. No more. In the new version, you can sample the API and click around. If you want to use it programatically, you’ll still need to authenticate.
  • It conforms with the new CourtListener database. More on this in a moment, but the important part is that version 3 of the API supports Dockets, Opinion Clusters and Sub-Opinions, linking them neatly to Judges.
  • The search API supports Citation Searching. Our new Citation Search is a powerful feature that’s now available in the API.
  • Bulk data now has metadata. In response to a …
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Citation Searching on CourtListener

One of the great new features that the new version of CourtListener provides is what we’re calling Citation Searching. Citation Searching lets you look at all the opinions that cite an opinion you’re interested in and then slice and dice them so that you only see the ones that are important to you.

For example, say you’re looking at Roe v. Wade and you want to analyze the cases that have cited it. In CourtListener, in the sidebar on the left, there’s a list of the opinions citing the one you’re looking at, in the section called “Cited By”. At the bottom of that section, there’s a link that says, “Full List of Cited Opinions”.

Sidebar

If you click that link, you’ll be taken back to the search results page, and you’ll see that your query is for cites:(108713). The number in there is the ID of Roe v. Wade that you can see in its URL. This is just standard CourtListener search syntax, so you can tweak it however you like.

For example, another important case in this area is Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which has an ID of 112786. If …

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Millions of New “Short Form” Case Names Now on CourtListener

While working on a soon-to-be-released feature of CourtListener, we needed to create “short form” case names for all the cases that we could. We’re happy to share that we’ve created about 1.8M short form case names, including complete coverage for all Supreme Court cases going back to 1947, when the Supreme Court Database begins.

If you’re not familiar with the term, short form case names are the ones you might use in a later citation to an authority you’ve already discussed in a document. For example, the first time you mention a case you might say:

Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States Ex Rel. Carter

But later references might just be:

Kellogg Brown at 22

The Blue Book doesn’t have a lot to say about this format, but does say the short form must make it, “clear to the reader…what is being referenced.” Also:

When using only one party name in a short form citation, use the name of the first party, unless that party is a geographical or governmental unit or other common litigant.

With these rules in mind, we made an algorithm that attempts to generate good short form …

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Many Improvements Released in New CourtListener Version

It’s taken the better part of a year, but I’m thrilled to announce that a new and better version of CourtListener is live as of this moment. If you can’t tell the difference immediately, we see that as a good thing, since most of the enhancements are under the hood.

  • The most important changes in this version have to do with the database, which now supports a number of new features. Most importantly, legal opinions are no longer single entities. For example, in the past if we had the lead opinion, a dissent, and a concurrence, we had no choice but to put them all together and make them readable top to bottom on our site. That has been fine, but in our new system we introduce the concept of an Opinion Cluster, which consists of several “sub opinions”.

    This will let us have links from a dissent to a concurrence, something we couldn’t do before. Or we can change the way the “sub-opinions” are displayed so that you can easily go straight to the dissent or the concurrence, without having to scroll endlessly. In a similar way, we are now introducing dockets, which will soon …

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Launching Free.law Website

A quick announcement today to share that we’re making Free.law our new home and that we’re launching a new homepage to go with it. If you’re reading this post, you’re looking at the new site! Let us know what you think or if we can improve it somehow. For the most part, it’s a replica of our old site, but we’ve made a few improvements here and there. In general, the layout, typography, security, speed, and reliability should all be better.

In addition to the new homepage being live, we also updated our email, so you can now reach us at somebody@free.law.

We love preserving digital artifacts, so here’s a screenshot of the old site:

Old Homepage

FreeLawProject.org, v1. You can also browse the old site at archive.org.

For the technically curious, this new site uses the Pelican Static Site Generator, and runs on the Amazon Web Services stack. This means that it will be incredibly fast no matter where you are in the world, it should never go down, and it allows us to secure the page behind HTTPS. If you want more details, you can find them in …

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Our New Citation Finder

CourtListener now has a new citation finder that you can use with any citation in our system. It’s dead simple. There are two ways to use it.

Either simply type in the citation you want to look up:

Citation Lookup

Or, just make a link with a format like:

  • https://www.courtlistener.com/c/REPORTER/VOLUME/PAGE/

And you’ll get to the page for that citation. For example, using parallel citations, any of these links will take you to Citizen’s United v. Federal Elections Commission:

This new tool relies on our existing citation extractor, which extracts thousands of citations from opinions every day. As a result, these links are also able to handle alternate names for any reporter that we have encoded in our Reporters Database. For example, the United States Reports has historically also been abbreviated as “U.S.S.C.Rep.” or “USSCR”. Use either of these, and you’ll find that they also work without a hitch:

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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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New Juriscraper Email List

Update: We’ve moved our development conversation over to Slack. If you wish to join us there, please get in touch using our contact form.

Quick post today to share that by popular demand, we’ve created YAEL — Yet Another Email List. Today’s list is one we should have made a while back, and is for folks that work on the Juriscraper library. You can find and add yourself to the list here:

http://lists.freelawproject.org/cgi-bin/mailman/listinfo/juriscraper

In general, this will be a normal list where we’ll post any important updates about Juriscraper, but this list will also get one special email per day documenting the status of our 200+ court scrapers. Previously this email was only sent privately to maintainers, but by making it public, we’re hoping to encourage more people to identify and fix the day to day problems that arise with so many scrapers.

Scraper Status Email

Yesterday’s status email

We look forward to lots more discussion and so much more scraping!

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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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Welcoming Thomas Bruce and Jerry Goldman to our Board

Today we’re proud to announce that Tom Bruce and Jerry Goldman recently joined the Free Law Project Board of Directors.

Tom is the Director and co-founder of the Legal Information Institute at the Cornell Law School, where he has built a strong organization that serves millions of people every year. He has consulted on four continents, is a member of a number of standards bodies and committees, and in a previous life made the first browser for Microsoft Windows.

Jerry is the founder and director of the Oyez Project, a vast and widely utilized multimedia archive devoted to the U.S. Supreme Court and its work. He’s an influential author on a number of political and legal topics, and has received numerous awards for his efforts at Oyez and as a professor at both Chicago-Kent College of Law, and Northwestern University’s Department of Political Science.

Fellow Board Member, Brian Carver, said, “Mike and I have been directing Free Law Project for a while and when we thought about who we would most like to help us with our mission, Tom Bruce and Jerry Goldman were our top two choices. We’re thrilled that these two, who have …

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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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Brian and Mike’s Presentations from Columbia’s Web Archiving Conference

Co-Founder Brian Carver and I presented at Columbia’s Web Archiving Conference last month and the videos have now been posted on YouTube. Brian gave a substantial talk about Juriscraper and how we used a grant from Columbia to expand it to cover all fifty states:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_qZ4hNtmyw&index=2&list=PLf1Dab4lwQhBpFRB1dpUnKLglmM2iScjl

And I did a lightning talk about RECAP:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqrC0Ygdc-M&index=4&list=PLf1Dab4lwQhBpFRB1dpUnKLglmM2iScjl

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Reporters Database

United States Reporters

A long time ago in a courthouse not too far away, people started making books of every important decision made by the courts. These books became known as reporters and were generally created by librarian-types of yore such as Mr. William Cranch and Alex Dallas.

These men—-for they were all men—-were busy for the next few centuries and created thousands of these books, culminating in what we know today as West’s reporters or as regional reporters like the “Dakota Reports” or the thoroughly-named, “Synopses of the Decisions of the Supreme Court of Texas Arising from Restraints by Conscript and Other Military Authorities (Robards).”

Motivated by our need to identify citations to these reporters, we’ve taken a stab at aggregating a few facts about them, such as variations in their name, abbreviation, or years they were published, and put all that information into our reporters database. Until recently, this database lived deep inside CourtListener and was only discovered by intrepid hackers rooting around, but a few months ago we pulled it out, put it in its own repository, and converted it to better formats so anyone could more easily re-use it.

Currently, it’s ready to use …

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New Versions of RECAP Extensions Out Now!

RECAP Logo

We’ve released new versions of the RECAP extensions for Chrome and Firefox and they will be auto-updating in your browsers soon.

These are the first new versions in more than two years, and while they are relatively small releases, we’re very excited to be rolling them out.

The headline feature for these extensions is a new Team Name field that you can configure in your settings. We are planning some competitions to see who can upload the most documents to RECAP and to participate, you’ll have to join a team and fill in this field with the team’s name. For now, this is a beta feature, so take a look and let us know if you have ideas for improving or using it.

There are a handful of other fixes that have also landed in these releases. In both Chrome and Firefox, the icons have been improved to support high resolution screens, and the extensions have been changed to support HTTPS uploads, making them more private and secure. In Chrome, we have a new testing framework, thanks to a volunteer developer, and we have fixed notifications to work more reliably.

A lot of this is minor …

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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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