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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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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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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Free Law Project Unveils API for Court Opinions

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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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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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The abolishment of the Emergency Court of Appeals (April 18, 1962)

One of the coming features at CourtListener is an API for the law. Part of that feature is going to be some basic information about the courts themselves, so I spent some time over the weekend researching courts that served a special purpose but were since abolished.

One such court was the Emergency Court of Appeals. It was created during World War II to set prices, and, naturally, was the court of appeals for many cases. The creation date of the court is prominently published in various places on the Internet, but the abolishment history of the court was very difficult to find. After researching online for some time, and learning that my library card had expired (sigh), I put in a query with the Library of Congress, which provides free research of these types of things.

Within a couple days, the provided me with this amazing response, which I’m sharing here, and on the above Wikipedia article:

As stated in the Legislative Notes to 50 U.S. Code Appendix §§ 921 to 926, as posted at

http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode50a/usc_sec_50a_00000921——000-notes.html, the following explanation is given regarding the amendment and repeal of Act …

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