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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Our RECAP partnership with Princeton University’s CITP

Today Free Law Project announced that it is partnering with Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy to manage the operation and development of the RECAP platform. Most readers here will know that the RECAP platform utilizes free browser extensions to improve the experience of using PACER, the electronic public access system for U.S. federal courts, and crowdsources the creation of a free and open archive of public court records.

I have been frustrated with PACER for a long time: as a member of the public, as a law student, as a litigator, as an academic, and as one trying to build systems for public access to court documents. I’ve been frustrated by the price per page, by the price for searches with no results, by the shocking price for inadvertent searches with thousands of results, by the occasional price for judicial opinions that are supposed to be free, by the price in light of the fact that Congress made clear that the Judicial Conference “may, only to the extent necessary, prescribe reasonable fees… for access to information available through automatic data processing equipment” when it has been demonstrated time and again that PACER revenues grossly exceed …

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Detecting Judicial Corrections

One of the goals of the CourtListener platform is to enable others to analyze judicial opinions. To that end we provide all of our data as bulk downloads and try to archive any opinion that a court publishes.

On some occasions, this results in a slightly confusing search result like the following:

double
result](https://www.courtlistener.com/?q=epa+v+eme+homer&stat_Precedential=on&order_by=dateFiled+desc&court=scotus)

We realize having an opinion in the system two times can be a bit confusing, but the reason this happens is because courts will sometimes make corrections to a slip opinion after its initial release. Sometimes the new version of the slip opinion will make note of the change, other times the court makes this change silently, perhaps hoping that the public either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.

Usually these are minor corrections, but occasionally not. For example, in the case above, Justice Scalia made a mistake in his dissent, completely flipping the position of the EPA in the case he references. Such significant alterations are a rare occurrence and it has been widely highlighted in the press. Many systems will silently remove opinions that have such errors, but we …

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LVI 2014 Call for Abstracts

The Law via the Internet (LVI) 2014 conference will be held this year September 30 - October 1 in Nairobi, Kenya. The theme will be “The Impact of open access to legal information: Bridging the gap between accessibility and usefulness.” The call for abstracts is now available from the LVI 2014 website.

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CourtListner’s REST API Featured on Programmable Web

Yesterday Mark Boyd published a great story about the CourtListener API on Programmable Web. Mark talked to several of the API’s early adopters and really learned what the issues are and how people are addressing them. Thanks to all those quoted in the story for taking the time to talk with Mark about the CourtListener REST API. We’re excited about how you all are already using the API and hope to continue improving it. (There’s nothing like people hitting your website thousands of times a day to shake loose hard-to-find bugs…and we’ve had some of that too and hope to get any and all bugs resolved ASAP!)

I particularly like Waldo Jaquith‘s sentiment quoted in the article that 24 months from now we will find it quaint that anyone found this interesting. I sure hope so! That will mean we’ve made many advances and the thought of not having an API for United States case law will seem unimaginable. Unfortunately, free programmatic access—even digital access—to U.S. case law has been not much more than a fanciful dream for a long time in the legal technology community. For years we’ve …

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Free Law Project Calls for License-Free Government Data

Today a group of non-proft public interest organizations have released updated Best-Practices Language for Making Government Data “License-Free.” Free Law Project is glad to sign on to their statement and to support the effort to assist government agencies in making clear that their data is free of copyright or contractual restrictions and can be re-used freely.

The details can be found at http://theunitedstates.io/licensing/ See also Josh Tauberer’s blog post announcing this release.

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Free Law Project Joins Free Access to Law Movement

Free Law Project is proud to announce that it has been officially accepted as a member of the Free Access to Law Movement. FALM is a consortium of non-profit institutions dedicated to providing free and open access to the world’s law. Its members subscribe to the Declaration on Free Access to Law.

The Declaration explains in part that,

  • Public legal information from all countries and international institutions is part of the common heritage of humanity. Maximising access to this information promotes justice and the rule of law;
  • Public legal information is digital common property and should be accessible to all on a non-profit basis and free of charge;
  • Organisations such as legal information institutes have the right to publish public legal information and the government bodies that create or control that information should provide access to it so that it can be published by other parties.

We have been operating consistently with the principles laid out in the Declaration for some time. Finding ourselves in complete agreement with the Declaration on Free Access to Law, we are excited now to make it official and to formally join with our colleagues around the globe engaged in these endeavors.

FALM members …

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Our New Authorities Table Allows Traveling to the Past

For a long time we’ve had a feature that allowed you to look at the items that cite an opinion, letting you to look into the future and see what cases found it important down the line. As of today, we’re announcing the complimentary feature that allows easy travel into the past. Starting immediately, when you look at almost any case in our collection you’ll see an Authorities section in its sidebar.

For example, Roe v. Wade looks like this:

authorities-sidebar-example

This section shows the top five opinions that were cited by the one you are looking at. If you wish to see all of the opinions it cited there is a link at the bottom that takes you to the new Table of Authorities page, which shows everything:

authorities
table

Now, when you’re looking at an opinion, you can easily travel through time to either opinions that came later or ones that came before. Doc Brown would be proud.

Posted by: Michael Lissner

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Free Law Project Unveils API for Court Opinions

powered-by
logo

Today marks another big day for the Free Law Project. We’re happy to share that we’ve created the first ever API for U.S. Legal Opinions. An API —- or Application Programming Interface —- is a way for computers to talk to each other and consume each others’ data in an automated fashion. From this day forth, developers, researchers and legal startups can begin consuming the data that we have at CourtListener in a granular and very specific manner.

For example, here are some very basic things that can be done with our API (these links will only work if you are signed in to your CourtListener account):

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CiteGeist Powers CourtListener’s Newly Improved Search Results

demo graph

The citation graph is made into a network to compute CiteGeist scores.

We’re excited to announce that beginning today our relevancy engine will provide significantly better results than it has in the past. Starting today, whenever you place a query we will analyze which opinions are the most cited, and we will use that to provide the best results possible. We’re calling this the CiteGeist score because it finds the spirit of your query (“Geist”) and gives you the best possible results. This is currently enabled for our corpus starting in the 1750’s up through about 1985, and the remaining years will get the CiteGeist treatment as well over the next few days.

The details of how CiteGeist works are in our code, but the basic idea is to give a high CiteGeist score to opinions that are cited many times by other important opinions, and to give a lower CiteGeist to opinions that have not been cited or that have only been cited by unimportant opinions. Once we’ve established the CiteGeist score, we combine it with a query’s keyword-based (TF/IDF) relevancy. Together, we get a combined score which is a measure of how …

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Want to Merge Millions of Legal Opinions? It Won’t Be Easy.

Note: This is the third in the series of posts explaining the work that we did to release the data donation from Lawbox LLC. This is a very technical post exploring and documenting the process we use for extracting meta data and merging it with our current collection. If you’re not technically-inclined (or at least curious), you may want to scoot along.

Working with legal data is hard. We all know that, but this post serves to document the many reasons why that’s the case and then delves deeply into the ways we dealt with the problems we encountered while importing the Lawbox donation. The data we received from Lawbox contains about 1.6M HTML files and we’ve spent the past several months working with them to extract good meta data and then merge it with our current corpus. This post is a long and technical one and below I’ve broken it into two sections explaining this process: Extraction and Merging.

Extraction

Extraction is a difficult process when working with legal data because it’s inevitably quite dirty: Terms aren’t used consistently, there are no reliable identifiers, formats vary across jurisdictions, and the data was …

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Our New Jurisdiction Picker

Note: This is a technical post exploring and documenting the work that was done in order to build our new jurisdiction picker. If you’re not technically-inclined (or at least curious), you may want to move along before getting sucked in.

While prepping to import the Lawbox corpus, one of the many things we did was redesign our jurisdiction picker so it would support more than 350 jurisdictions. Completing this efort was a collaboration between me and a volunteer contributor, Peter Nguyen. Peter and I worked together iteratively, first building a wireframe of the jurisdiction picker, then a prototype, then the final version that you see today.

Before beginning, we outlined the use cases that the new picker should support. It should:

  • Allow a user to select a single jurisdiction;
  • Allow a user to select all jurisdictions from state, federal, district, bankruptcy or all of the above;
  • Allow a user to select in hybrid mode — expanding a selection of a state courts to the related federal courts or vice versa;
  • Allow users to easily select the courts they desire by filtering to the ones they’re interested in;
  • Support more than 300 jurisdictions without taking up too much space; and …
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Free Law Project Adds More than 1.5M Opinions to its Collection Thanks to Data Donation

For Immediate Release —- Berkeley, CA

After many years of collecting and curating data, today CourtListener crossed some incredible boundaries. Thanks to a generous data donation from Lawbox LLC, our computers are currently adding more than 1.5M new opinions to CourtListener, expanding our coverage to a total of more than 350 jurisdictions. This new data enables legal professionals and researchers insight into data that has never before been available in bulk and greatly enhances the data we previously had. This data will be slowly rolling out in our front end, and will soon be available in bulk from our bulk downloads page. A new version of our coverage page was developed, and, as always, you can see our current coverage for any jurisdiction we support.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this new data. In addition to being a massive expansion of our coverage, it also brings some notable improvements to the project:

  1. For all of the new data and much of our old data, we have added star pagination throughout. For the first time, this will make pinpoint citations possible using the CourtListener platform.
  2. We’ve re-organized our database for more accurate citations enabling for the first …
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Free Law Virtual Machine Available for Academics and Developers

Update: This tool has been deprecated. We heartily recommend our new process using Vagrant.

A goal of the Free Law Project is to make development of legal tools as easy as possible. In that vein, we’re excited to share that as of today we’re officially taking the wraps off what we’re calling the Free Law Virtual Machine.

For those not familiar with this, a virtual machine is a snapshot of a computer that can be run by anybody, anywhere. With this release, we’ve created a computer running Ubuntu Linux that our developers or academics can download, and which has all of the Free Law Project’s efforts pre-loaded and ready to go.

In addition to a number of minor improvements, the following are installed and configured:

  • Courtlistener
  • Juriscraper
  • Development tools such as Intellij, Meld, vim, and Kiki
  • Bookmarks of all American courts

In addition to providing a simple virtual machine that you can install, we’re also releasing sample data that can easily be imported into the CourtListener platform. This data is available in groups of 50, 500, 5,000 or 50,000 records so that anybody can easily begin working or experimenting with our platform …

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