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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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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CourtListener and Juriscraper Now Support All State Courts of Last Resort!

In 2010, we wrote our first scraper. It was a nasty affair that could do nothing more than download PDFs from a webpage — any webpage. Since that point, we’ve come a long way and today we’re extremely excited to announce that the Juriscraper library now supports every state court of last resort. In most states this is the “Supreme Court”, though some states call their highest court the “Court of Appeals” or similar.

This means that no matter what jurisdiction interests you, no matter what area of the law you work in, you can follow the works of your state’s highest court in real time, getting emails or RSS feeds of the latest cases that interest you. And, of course, as new opinions are issued by these courts, we will keep adding them to our system, continuing to build the biggest repository of cases we can. As of today, Juriscraper has collected more than 400,000 opinions, and we expect that number to grow and grow.

On top of this, we also support dozens of intermediate State appellate courts and all of the federal courts of appeals. Check our list to see if a specific court is …

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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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New Homepage and a CourtListener Revamp

Home Page
ScreenshotWe’re happy to share today that we’ve completed a revamp of the CourtListener website to make it more polished, easier to use and easier to learn. There are a handful of changes we’re really happy about and that we’ve wanted to do for a long time.

First, of course, is our new homepage. The new homepage is designed to showcase our latest material, to make new opinions easy to find, and to better introduce CourtListener to new users. The most striking change in the homepage is that at its center it now has a huge search box where you can place queries, and if you’re an advanced user, you can press the “Advanced” button, and it will show you all of the search facets that we support, from Case Name to Citation Count.

The homepage also ushers in a change that’s been in the works for some time — we’re finally ordering our results by “Relevance” instead of “Newest First”. This change was made possible by the improvements we’ve made to our relevance engine over the past year, and is one we’re really excited about. We expect that as you use the …

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