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.
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.
Update: The video and other materials from the Transparency Caucus are now available. You can watch Harlan’s remarks below:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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 let us know if you find any bugs.
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.
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.
Last week, we got our first major media coverage from across the pond, as the Guardian gave us a generous write-up. They call RECAP “an ingenious twist on peer to peer networking” and write that “since the system launched in August, legal circles have been buzzing with support for the idea.”
Meanwhile, RECAP continues to generate interest from the legal profession. Earlier this month, RECAP’s own Tim Lee spoke to a group of New Jersey lawyers about how the software can save their clients money while expanding access to the public domain. And Arizona Attorney magazine has an in-depth article about RECAP and the debate over public access. They write that “there appears to be nothing illegal about the use of RECAP by those who are paying PACER users” (we agree). And they conclude that we’ve “carefully thought through the ethical implications and goals of the program.” We like to think so. The December issue of Virginia Lawyer magazine profiles RECAP, describing in detail the efforts so far to liberate PACER documents.