Accessing the RECAP Repository without PACER

Of all the questions we’ve received, probably the most common is whether it will be possible to access the documents in our archive without using PACER at all. The answer is yes, but at the moment we don’t offer any good browsing or searching tools.

The big reason has to do with privacy. One of our top priorities in developing RECAP was making sure we don’t inadvertently compromise the privacy of individuals who are the subject of court records. A lot of sensitive personal information is revealed in the course of federal court cases. A variety of private parties might be interested in using the information contained in these records for illicit purposes such as identity theft, stalking, and witness intimidation. We wanted to make sure we weren’t inadvertently facilitating those types of activities.

In theory, the courts have redaction rules designed to deal with these problems. Judges can order particularly sensitive documents to be sealed, and the rest of the documents are supposed to be redacted to prevent inadvertent disclosure of private information. Unfortunately, this process is far from perfect. Private information does sometimes wind up in the public version of court documents.

When court …

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Law Professors, Librarians, and Think Tankers Praise RECAP

We’ve been getting a ton of helpful feedback from users over the weekend. We’re grateful for all the supportive emails, comments, and tweets we’ve received. We’re also grateful for the bug reports and feature requests we’ve gotten. We need this kind of feedback to make RECAP better.

Most of the questions we’ve received are are now answered by our Frequently Asked Questions. Stay tuned for some upcoming blog posts where we’ll address some of these questions in more detail. But first, we wanted to highlight some more of the commentary that RECAP’s release has generated.

James Grimmelmann, a law professor at New York Law School who has done some great writing on public access to the law, gives RECAP this generous endorsement:

The great part about this is that because the Archive is providing the server space for free, every RECAP user is saving the court system work. Each time you download through RECAP, you avoid having to go through PACER’s servers at all. So yes, RECAP will mean a decrease in PACER’s revenues, but it also means a decrease in the things those revenues need to pay for. It …

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The Blogosphere Weighs in on RECAP

We’re thrilled at the reception RECAP has gotten in its first few hours. Among the notable reactions, Techcrunch discusses the legal issues and concludes that using RECAP doesn’t violate copyright law. RECAP is a hot topic of conversation at Slashdot. CNet also weighed in, highlighting one of the challenges RECAP may face in the coming months:

There are some potential problems. One is that because the RECAP developers plan to make the source code available, it wouldn’t be hard for someone to seed the Internet Archive with “official court documents” that had been modified in some way. (The answer is for users to pay to download important files from PACER, or for the courts to employ digital signatures.)

Techdirt calls RECAP “ingenious”, and concludes that “this is a fantastic idea that hopefully will help to open up public domain court information that has been locked behind PACER’s paywalls for too long.”

Finally, Ars Technica does its usual thorough job of covering RECAP, writing:

The RECAP project could also illuminate potential solutions to the problems that are blocking a more complete PACER overhaul. Despite growing pressure from Congress to reform the PACER system and make data available …

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A Million Documents At Your Fingertips

In our last post, we mentioned that we were already working with other organizations that support judicial transparency to help us build the public repository that lies at RECAP’s foundation. Public.resource.org, led by Carl Malamud, has been especially helpful in this regard. They have a vast repository of court documents, weighing in at more than 500 gigabytes in total. Over the last few weeks we’ve been pre-stocking the archive with these documents, and we recently crossed the million document threshold.

What this means is that installing RECAP will not only help you contribute to government transparency, but it’s likely to start saving you money right out of the gate. For example, if you practice law in New York City, you’ll be happy to know that we have 238,098 documents from the Southern District of New York. If you have RECAP installed, you can use PACER the way you normally do, and RECAP will automatically inform you if the document you need is already available for free.

Here is a table of the other courts where we have a significant number of documents:

Court No. of Documents


District of Alaska 52,797 Northern District …

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Turning PACER Around

Transparency is a fundamental principle of our legal system. Since the 1980s, the cutting edge of judicial transparency has been PACER, an electronic system that allows attorneys and the general public to access millions of federal court records. PACER was a big step forward when it was originally created, but lately it has begun to show its age. At a time when the other two branches of government are becoming ever more subject to online scrutiny, the judicial branch still requires citizens to provide a credit card and pay eight cents a page for its documents. For reasons we detail on our “Why It Matters” page, we think this needs to change, and the sooner the better.

Today we’re excited to release the public beta of RECAP. RECAP is an extension to the popular Firefox web browser that gives PACER users a hassle-free way to contribute to a free, open repository of federal court records. When a RECAP user purchases a document from PACER, the RECAP extension helps her automatically send a copy of that document to the RECAP archive. And RECAP saves its users money by notifying them when documents they’re searching for are already available for …

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RECAP Project — Why It Matters

The right of access to criminal trials in particular is properly afforded protection by the First Amendment both because such trials have historically been open to the press and public and because such right of access plays a particularly significant role in the functioning of the judicial process and the government as a whole.

Globe Newspaper Co. v. Superior Ct., 457 U.S. 596

We are a nation of laws. Our law is created not only via legislation, but also through the adjudicative process of the courts. Whereas we generally have open and free access to the statutes that bind us, case law has had a more mixed history. Earlier experiments in secret proceedings did not go well. Western law subsequently developed strong precedents for access to judicial proceedings — citing the importance of transparency in promoting court legitimacy, accountability, fairness, and democratic due process. When the law is accessible, “ignorance of the law is no excuse”

Legal accessibility has traditionally meant that citizens may review the law via the contemporary technology, and redistribute it at will. In ancient courts, this implied open public access to the proceeding itself. Indeed, the principle was literally built into the architecture of the courthouses …

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