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Assessing PACER’s Access Barriers

2010 August 17
by recapthelaw

The U.S. Courts recently conducted a year-long assessment of their Electronic Public Access program which included a survey of PACER users. While the results of the assessment haven’t been formally published, the Third Branch Newsletter has an interview with Bankruptcy Judge J. Rich Leonard that discusses a few high-level findings of the survey. Judge Leonard has been heavily involved in shaping the evolution of PACER since its inception twenty years ago and continues to lead today.

The survey covered a wide range of PACER users—“the courts, the media, litigants, attorneys, researchers, and bulk data collectors”—and Judge Leonard claims they found “a remarkably high level of satisfaction”: around 80% of those surveyed were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the service.

If we compare public access before we had PACER to where we are now, there is clearly much success to celebrate. But the key question is not only whether current users are satisfied with the service but also whether PACER is reaching its entire audience of potential users. Are there artificial obstacles preventing potential PACER users—who admittedly would be difficult to poll—from using the service? The satisfaction statistic may be fine at face value, assuming that a representative sample of users were polled, but it could be misleading if it’s being used to gauge the overall success of PACER as a public access system.

One indicator of obstacles may be another statistic cited by Judge Leonard: “about 45% of PACER users also use CM/ECF,” the Courts’ electronic case management and filing system. To put it another way, nearly half of all PACER users are currently attorneys who practice federal law.

That number seems inordinately high to me and suggests that significant barriers to public access may exist. In particular, account registration requires all users to submit a valid credit card for billing (or alternatively a valid home address to receive log-in credentials and billing statements by mail.) Even if users’ credit cards are never charged, this registration hurdle may already turn away many potential PACER users at the door.

The other barrier is obviously the cost itself. With a few exceptions, users are forced to pay a fee for each document they download, at a metered rate of eight-cents per page. Judge Leonard asserts that “surprisingly, cost ranked way down” in the survey and that “most people thought they paid a fair price for what they got.”

But this doesn’t necessarily imply that cost isn’t a major impediment to access. It may just be that those surveyed—primarily lawyers—simply pass the cost of using PACER down to their clients and never bear the cost themselves. For the rest of PACER users who don’t have that luxury, the high cost of access can completely rule out certain kinds of legal research, or cause users to significantly ration and monitor their usage (as is the case even in the vast majority of our nation’s law libraries), or wholly deter users from ever using the service.

Judge Leonard rightly recognizes that it’s Congress that has authorized the collection of user fees, rather than using general taxpayer money, to fund the electronic public access program. But I wish the Courts would at least acknowledge that moving away from a fee-based model, to a system funded by general appropriations, would strengthen our judicial process and get us closer to securing each citizen’s right to equal protection under the law.

Rather than downplaying the barriers to public access, the Courts should work with Congress to establish a way forward to support a public access system that is truly open. They should study and report on the extent to which Congress already funds PACER indirectly, through Executive and Legislative branch PACER fee payments to the Judiciary, and re-appropriate those funds directly. If there is a funding shortfall, and I assume there will be, they should study the various options for closing that gap, such as additional direct appropriations or a slight increase in certain filing fees.

With our other two branches of government making great strides in openness and transparency with the help of technology, the Courts similarly needs to transition away from a one-size-fits-all approach to information dissemination. Public access to the courts will be fundamentally transformed by a vigorous culture of civic innovation around federal court documents, and this will only happen if the Courts confront today’s access barriers head-on and break them down.

(Thanks to Daniel Schuman for pointing me to the original article.)

New Search and Browsing Interface for the RECAP Archive

2010 August 3
by recapthelaw

One of the most-requested RECAP features is a better web interface to the archive. Today we’re releasing an experimental system for searching and browsing, at archive.recapthelaw.org. There are also a couple of extra features that we’re eager to get feedback on. For example, you can subscribe to an RSS feed for any case in order to get updates when new documents are added to the archive. We’ve also included some basic tagging features that lets anybody add tags to any case. We’re sure that there will be bugs to be fixed or improvements that can be made. Please let us know.

The first version of the system was built by an enterprising team of students in Professor Ed Felten’s “Civic Technologies” course: Jen King, Brett Lullo, Sajid Mehmood, and Daniel Mattos Roberts. Dhruv Kapadia has done many of the subsequent updates. The links from the Recap Archive pages point to files on our gracious host, the Internet Archive.

See, for example, the RECAP Archive page for United States of America v. Arizona, State of, et al. This is the Arizona District Court case in which the judge last week issued an order granting injunction against several portions of the controversial immigration law. As you can see, some of the documents have a “Download” link that allows you to directly download the document from the Internet Archive, whereas others have a “Buy from PACER” link because no RECAP users have yet liberated the document.

More RECAP Events

2010 June 16
by recapthelaw

On Tuesday June 22, Harlan Yu will be on Capitol Hill speaking to Congressional Staffers at an event sponsored by the Advisory Committee on Transparency. The event is called Transparency Made Easy: How to Make the Government More Open and Accountable. It is open only to staffers, but the Sunlight Foundation will post video of the event afterward.

On Friday the 25th, both Harlan and Steve will be at the 20th Annual CALI Conference in Camden NJ, explaining how “Capturing PACER for Open Access” can benefit the cause of legal education.

Update: The video and other materials from the Transparency Caucus are now available. You can watch Harlan’s remarks below:

New PACER Fee Data, RECAP Appearances This Week

2010 June 14
by recapthelaw

This week, RECAP team member Steve Schultze released new data on how PACER fees are collected and spent in a post entitled, “What Does It Cost to Provide Electronic Public Access to Court Records?” He will discuss this new data and other aspects of public access to federal case materials at a Law.gov event in DC tomorrow (live streaming video). Steve will also be on a panel at the Virginia State Bar Association’s annual meeting on Thursday, speaking about how the federal electronic filing experience can inform state efforts. That same day, RECAP developer Dhruv Kapadia will be at the Law.gov event at Harvard.

There will be more RECAP developments and public appearances in the coming weeks.

Update: The video for the Law.Gov Event at the Center for American Progress is now posted on their site. You can watch the excerpt of Steve’s remarks below:

RECAP, The Press, and Judicial Transparency

2010 April 30
by recapthelaw

USA Today just posted an article covering the debate over Arizona’s new immigration law. The article is essentially a roundup of relevant coverage, comments, and the wave of pending lawsuits. It is an example of the core activities of journalism in action — namely information gathering, synthesis, and dissemination on issues relevant to the public. The article is also notable because it embeds the actual text of a complaint from one of the lawsuits filed yesterday. This document came from PACER.

Some time yesterday, a RECAP user also downloaded that document, thus contributing it to the public archive. You can see the docket and document here. As a result, anyone can freely search for, download, or re-post the document. People can also follow the progress of the case (assuming RECAP users continue to download new documents as they are posted). The fact that this is all happening automatically is an exciting success for RECAP.

However, that success is inherently limited. Although the system worked in this particular case, there are literally millions of other cases that have not been similarly liberated from the PACER paywall. Many of these are highly relevant to American citizens, but they are not of broad enough interest to garner widespread attention, and/or whoever happens to be interested in those cases happens to not be using RECAP. This illustrates the fundamental problem of the PACER fee model in the first place. As bloggers and citizen journalists increasingly provide coverage of issues that the mainstream press misses, they need to have the ability to freely find and share the core materials on which they report. That includes court records.

Update: At the recent House of Representatives Law.Gov Event, Eugene B. Meyer, President of the Federalist Society explained why access to legal materials about current policy debates like the Arizona law is critical to democratic society. You can watch the excerpt below:

 

Update: At the subsequent Law.Gov Event at the Center for American Progress, Caroline Fredrickson, Executive Director, American Constitution Society explained that although her organization is often at ideological odds with the Federalist Society, this is an important issue that transcends partisan lines. You can watch the excerpt below:

RECAP Documents Now More Searchable Via Internet Archive

2010 April 19
by recapthelaw

We recently made a small change to the way that documents uploaded by RECAP users are made available on the Internet Archive. Until today, the Internet Archive had served primarily as a bulk hosting provider, without much ability to browse or search the archive. This was enforced in two ways: First, it was not possible to search for documents using the Internet Archive’s search tools. Second, external search engines were prevented from indexing the site. We decided to do this in order to be especially cautious with respect to privacy concerns that we have previously discussed.

Since we launched, we have spent a great deal of time examining these issues, and we decided to make a small incremental step in making the documents more findable without (yet) allowing in-depth full-text search of all documents. We have enabled Internet Archive indexing, as well as search engine indexing, for the case summary pages on the Internet Archive. That means, for example, that the relatively limited information on the AT&T v. Hepting case summary page is now searchable.

You can find this case through the Internet Archive search engine by doing a query like this:
http://www.archive.org/search.php?query=collection:usfederalcourts AND hepting

You can find this case through a Google query like this:
http://www.google.com/#&q=site:archive.org usfederalcourts hepting

As we continue to gain a better understanding of the privacy issues at stake, we will likely make further improvements to this system. We welcome your feedback.

Work on RECAP for Google Summer of Code 2010

2010 March 26
by recapthelaw

The Google Summer of Code program provides student stipends for summer work on open source projects. CITP, the home of RECAP, been chosen as a mentoring organization for 2010, meaning that some students will be chosen to work on RECAP this summer. Applications are accepted from March 29 to April 9.

If you are an undergraduate coder, you can browse our list of project ideas, read our overall description, and apply here.

RECAP Extension 0.6 Beta Released

2010 January 21
by recapthelaw

The Mozilla Foundation released version 3.6 of Firefox today, and we’re proud to release the corresponding version of the RECAP extension, beta version 0.6. In addition to Firefox 3.6 compatibility, we’ve also thrown in a new feature suggested by our users: the option to save documents using filenames that we describe as “lawyer style” in contrast to the “Internet Archive style” we’ve traditionally used. For example, rather than saving a document as “gov.uscourts.cand.204881.46.0.pdf,” you can now configure the extension to store a document as “N.D.Cal._3-08-cv-03251_46_0.pdf.” Those who prefer the traditional filenames are free to continue using those as well.

We’ve also improved our docket-parsing code, allowing us to extract more metadata from court dockets. New fields we’re now scraping include “Assigned to”, “Referred to ” , “Cause”, “Nature of Suit”, “Jury Demand”, “Jurisdiction”, and “Demand.” We also scrape information about parties, including names, contact information, and attorneys. You can see a good example here (to choose a case at random).

If you’re an existing Firefox user, Firefox periodically checks for updates to extensions and should automatically fetch the new version of the RECAP extension. Or you can force it to check immediately by clicking Tools->Extensions->Find Updates (or, depending on your Firefox version, Tools->Add-Ons->Find Updates). As always, please if you find any bugs.

RECAP in the Columbia Science and Technology Law Review

2009 December 8
by recapthelaw

The website of the Columbia Science and Technology Law Review has an excellent write-up of RECAP by Rajiv Batra. His conclusion:

As part of a trend toward opening access to American common law, RECAP’s place at the heart or the periphery of the movement remains to be seen. Like any crowdsourcing application, RECAP’s usefulness increases as more people use it. Yet PACER’s prime users are large, bill-paying law firms, which tend to be wary about adopting new technology and have little incentive to contribute documents they paid for to a free database.

“Success” for RECAP may not be mainstream adoption, however. Merely by creating the working plugin and calling attention to the problem of restricted access to court documents, CITP has advanced the cause of reforming and opening up access to PACER. That alone is “Turning PACER around.”

One point this misses is that using RECAP can directly reduce firms’ PACER fees. It’s true, of course, that most firms pass these costs along to their clients. However, in today’s economic climate, clients are increasingly pressing their law firms for cost savings. Adopting RECAP is a painless way for firms to demonstrate cost-consciousness. And the cost savings from RECAP adoption will only get bigger as RECAP’s user base continues to grow. So while we think judicial transparency is reason enough to use RECAP, installing RECAP is good for every firm’s bottom line.

In any event, Batra has written a great piece, and we encourage you to check it out.

Google Project Shows Value of Open Judicial Records

2009 November 20
by recapthelaw

We’re excited to see Google has unveiled a dramatic expansion of Google Scholar to include Supreme Court decisions going back to the 18th century, lower federal court decisions since the 1920s, and state Supreme Court and appellate decisions going back to the 1950s. They’ve done an impressive job with automated parsing of legal citations, transforming them into hyperlinks and allowing Google to do automated analysis of case similarity.

This type of project was precisely what we had in mind when some of us wrote “Government Data and the Invisible Hand” last year. The judiciary may be the foundation of a free society, but it’s not especially good at building websites or search engines. By making public records easily available for re-publications by third parties, the judiciary (and the other branches of government) can enable private parties to dramatically expand public access to public information.

In this case, the state and federal courts haven’t made it easy to download bulk data, so Google had to get the information from third parties. Google is a big company with significant resources at its disposal. But in an ideal world, it wouldn’t take the resources of a large company to get access to this kind of data. Of course, this is precisely the vision behind RECAP. We hope to build a free, public, and comprehensive repository of federal judicial records so that large companies like Google, small start-ups, and even non-profit organizations can get access to the data and build tools to do make these records more accessible and useful.

RECAP’s database is more limited than Google’s in some ways; we only store federal district court cases going back about 10 years. But it’s much more extensive in other respects; we have much more than just the final opinion in a case. We’d love to have third parties such as Google incorporate the data in RECAP into a tool like Google Scholar. But we’d be even happier if the judiciary itself took the lead, by freeing access to PACER and enabling bulk downloads. Google’s impressive new legal search tools show just how much value private parties can add when they build on public data.