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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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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Help Agitate to Open Up PACER

Update: This initiative has ended.

In Chief Justice Roberts’ End of Year Report there were some astounding figures about the size and scope of PACER, the Federal system for court filings. Among his figures was the fact that there are more than “one billion retrievable documents” in PACER:

We believe that this means that PACER is the largest collection of public domain documents locked behind a pay wall. Having access to this information is vital to a functioning judiciary and we are working to break it open.

Public.Resource.org recently published an excellent memo outlining a campaign to retrieve from PACER more of its contents and to create pressure for it to be opened completely. The memo, which is worth a read in itself, defines a strategy of “litigation, supplication, and agitation.”

Today we’re announcing a plan that should help with the third part of the strategy: Agitation.

Here’s how it will work:

  1. Today, you sign up for our email list.
  2. PACER provides a fee waiver for …
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CourtListener Can Now Send Alerts in Real Time for Donors

We rolled out a new feature today on CourtListener that allows you to stay up to date with court opinions and oral arguments as fast as we know about them. We’re calling it Real Time Alerts, and donors can start using this now by selecting “Real Time” in the rate drop down when creating alerts:

Real Time Alerts
Demo

Once you’ve set up an alert with this rate, we’ll begin checking the hundreds of items we download each day and we will send an email as soon as a new item triggers your alert. Just like our other emails, once you get the alert, you can click directly on the results to read opinions or listen to oral arguments.

For journalists and other users with speed-critical work, it’s as simple as that to keep up with hundreds of courts. Let us know what you think!

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CourtListener is Now Integrated with the Supreme Court Database

Earlier this week somebody on the Internet pinged us with some code and asked that we integrate the data from the Supreme Court Database (SCDB). Well, we’re happy to share that less than a week later we’ve taken the code they provided and used it to upgrade CourtListener’s database.

The Supreme Court Database includes data for about 8,500 Supreme Court opinions from 1946 to 2013 and this first pass merges that data with CourtListener so that:

  • Our copy of these opinions are enhanced with better parallel citations. You can now look these items up by U.S. Reporter (U.S.), The Supreme Court Reporter (S.Ct.), Lawyers’ Edition (L.Ed.) or even LEXIS citation (U.S. LEXIS). This should make our citation graph much more robust and should help people like Colin Starger at University of Baltimore that are doing great analyses with this data. Many of these items were screen scraped directly from the Supreme Court website meaning that for these items, this is the first time they have had proper citations. Here’s an example of the many parallel citations items now have:

Roe v. Wade
Citations

  • All Supreme Court Opinions from 1946 to 2013 have a new …
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Introducing Quick Tips on CourtListener

Starting today, as you use CourtListener you’ll see Quick Tips on the bottom of search results. They show up below search pagination and look something like this:

tips

The idea behind this feature is to give people quick bits of information about Free Law Project, CourtListener, RECAP and any other projects that we create in the future. As of now we’ve seeded the tips with about 20 that we thought would be useful, but because all of our work is in the open, we’re welcoming our users to add tips that they think would be useful.

To add a tip you’ll need a Github account and some basic HTML skills. If you have these two things, you can wander over to the list of tips and submit some of your own. If they’re good, we’ll add them to the site!

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Free Law Project Recognized in two one of Top Ten Legal Hacks of 2014 by DC Legal Hackers!

Yesterday the impressive DC Legal Hackers group held their first annual Le Hackie Awards and Holiday Party. Although we weren’t able to attend the event (it was in D.C.), we’re proud and gratified to share that Free Law Project played a part in two of the top ten legal hacks of the year. The first was for our new Oral Arguments feature that we’ve been blogging so much about lately, and the second was for Frank Bennett’s Free Law Ferret, which he built using code originally developed for CourtListener.

Update: Turns out the Free Law Ferret was from 2013 and was not awarded a Le Hackie Award. Our mistake was to trust a slide from the presentation, which contained a typo.

.@DCLegalHackers top 10 legal hacks of 2014 @congressedits @SCOTUS_servo #legalhacker pic.twitter.com/MJAvRU5Xln

—- Matt McKibbin (@LibertyPanacea) December 4, 2014

Brian and I couldn’t be happier to see the legal hacking community grow and we’re humbled to be a part of it. So much fantastic work is getting done each year, and the legal arena is growing and maturing at a feverish pace. We hope that the DC Legal Hackers will keep …

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CourtListener Adds 7,000 More Oral Arguments

The past week has been a busy one for us and we’re excited to announce that thanks to a generous data donation we’ve added an additional 7,000 oral arguments to CourtListener. These files are available now and can already be searched, saved, and made into podcasts.

Although 7,000 more oral arguments may not sound like much, I must point out that these files are larger than your average MP3 and this has taken a week for our powerful server to download and prepare. Our collection now has more than 200 continuous days of listening — more than six months of audio.

From here on, we’ll continue getting the latest oral arguments from the Federal Appeals courts that offer them but we are eager for more donations so we can build up our archive. Oyez.org is doing an incredible job with the Supreme Court (and we hope to integrate these eventually), but if you know somebody in the federal appellate courts or if you have a collection of oral arguments you’d like to share, please get in touch! We’re eager to hear from you and to build the largest collection of oral arguments that …

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Check Out CourtListener’s New Paint and Features

It’s really hard to overstate the incredible nature of the open source community, but if you head over to CourtListener, you’ll find that between yesterday and today the entire website has been revamped. This was done over the past month by a volunteer developer who took time off work to give every single page in the entire site a fresh lick of paint.

On top of just plain looking better, the new site has a raft of improvements that we’re excited about:

  • The entire site from top to bottom can now be used from your phone, tablet or desktop. Complicated pages will do the right thing to adapt to smaller or bigger screens. (Yes, we now use bootstrap.)
  • The accessibility of the site has been vastly improved for people with motility or vision difficulties. Over the next few days we’ll continue rolling out improvements in this area that will trickle down even to keyboard-heavy users.
  • Sharing pages on Facebook or Twitter and saving the site to your desktop on iOS, Android or Windows now works properly, with good titles, descriptions and meta data.

This post is supposed to be about the new version of the site …

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More Oral Argument News

Stitcher Logo

Stitcher Logo

We’re happy to share three pieces of news about oral arguments at CourtListener.

First, the sixth circuit has begun putting oral argument audio on their website and we have begun dishing it up through CourtListener. We briefly spoke to the technology team at the court and their reaction to our questions about their system was, “Oh, is that on our website already?” So this is a very new development, even for them.

Right now their site has oral argument audio back to August 7th and we are in the process of grabbing this audio and putting it in our archive. Unfortunately, the case in the news right now that’s blocking gay marriage in the circuit was argued one day prior to the oldest files they’ve posted, and so we don’t have audio for that case, and possibly never will. This is one big reason we’ve wanted to get into oral arguments on CourtListener and why we’ve been supported with a grant from Columbia Library to do this work: This content is simply going dark as new content is published.

While we’re happy to now be collecting data from the 6th Circuit …

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Announcing Oral Arguments on CourtListener

We’re very excited to announce that CourtListener is currently in the process of rolling out support for Oral Argument audio. This is a feature that we’ve wanted for at least four years — our name is CourtListener, after all — and one that will bring a raft of new features to the project. We already have about 500 oral arguments on the site, and we’ve got many more we’ll be adding over the coming weeks.

For now we are getting oral argument audio in real time from ten federal appellate courts. As we get this audio, we are using it to power a number of features:

  • Oral Argument files become immediately available in our search results.
  • A podcast is automatically available for every jurisdiction we support and for any query that you can dream up. Want a custom podcast containing all of the 9th circuit arguments for a particular litigant? You got it.
  • You can now get alerts for oral arguments so you can be sure that you keep up with the latest coming out of the courts.
  • For developers, there are a number of new endpoints in both our REST API and our bulk data API for …
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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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