Operation Asymptote – Spread the word – Download distributed PACER documents

Operation Asymptote

Overview

Operation Asymptote is an initiative designed to download as much of PACER as possible by spreading the burden across many individuals, none of whom need to spend anything by staying under PACER’s $15.00 per quarter free access allowance.

What do I need to do this?

  1. You must have five minutes.
  2. You must have a valid credit or debit card, even though it will not be charged.
  3. You must have a computer with internet access that can run Firefox.
  4. You must have a PACER account.
  5. You must have the free RECAP browser extension.
  6. You must download no more than $15.00 worth of PACER materials per calendar quarter.

. . .

PACER Training Pilot Project Begins in July

PACER Training Pilot Project Begins in July
June 17, 2011

A pilot project aimed at having public libraries enhance the public’s knowledge and use of the federal judiciary’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) service begins July 1, 2011.

Two libraries – the Library of Congress in the District of Columbia and the Law Library for San Bernadino, California – will kick off the pilot, but up to 50 additional public libraries may join them in future months.

PACER allows users to obtain case information from federal courts without having to visit the courthouse. The service allows an Internet user to request information about a particular case or party, and makes the data immediately available for printing or downloading at a cost of 8 cents per page.

In the pilot project, libraries will conduct at least one training class for the general public every three months, and offer training or refresher opportunities for library staff at least one a year. Those staff members, in turn, may assist library patrons in the use of PACER. For participating libraries, the first $50 of PACER use fees each quarter will be waived.

The pilot is a joint undertaking of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, the Government Printing Office, and the American Association of Law Libraries.

The Existential Exercise of Finding State Court Materials Online

Recently, we’ve had the opportunity to explore the online availability of state superior court filings, both through commercial retrieval services (such as Lexis’ CourtLink or Westlaw’s CourtExpress), and the superior courts’ own websites.  Sites like Justia are also incredible resources for obtaining select trial court documents, but our project instead examined more standardized provision of dockets and filings.

Having wrapped up this undertaking, we thought it would be useful to share our reflections.  First, a quick caveat about what this project did not involve. We were not comprehensively indexing document availability in every U.S. county, or even in all fifty states.  Rather, we examined selected states and counties, based mainly on population size.  In addition, though we are aware of various existing studies and compilations documenting the availability of state court records, we wanted to look behind some of these reports.  As we often found, a commercial retrieval service’s representation that the “civil filings are available” did not mean all filings on all matters.  Moreover, in a world of ever-changing court websites and eFiling programs, existing studies unfortunately have a somewhat limited shelf life.

So, with those disclaimers in mind, we are excited to share how floored we were by the disparities in the online provision of state court dockets and pleadings!  Here are a couple of observations:

I.          Commercial Services (e.g. CourtLink and CourtExpress)

  • Sometimes, one can get little for one’s money.  The commercial services’ promotional materials are sometimes misleading if you want to retrieve filings.  For instance, their coverage charts could indicate that dockets from Shawnee County, Kansas are available, but one can’t actually retrieve the dockets online; they are “available” only in the sense that one can make a request online (and pay additional money) to have a runner pull them from the court.
  • Another drawback was the infrequency with which commercial services updated their state trial court dockets.  Even if one clicks a button to manually update a docket, this does nothing if one is attempting to do so within the long stretches between docket captures.  (Commercial services capture docket snapshots only every 45 or 60 days, meaning that even if one tries updating in an intervening period, one really isn’t getting any newly-added information.)
  • We also found that, while commercial services often capture federal dockets and filings from PACER indiscriminately, their state court coverage is extraordinarily selective.  They often choose cases based on subject matter cachet, or the perceived needs of their customers.  If you want documents from a run-of-the-mill breach of contract case, you might be out of luck.
  • Don’t try this at home if you want to conduct empirical analysis!  What isn’t available through commercial services significantly constrains research, but what hinders research even further is the inability to determine what isn’t available. How can one properly evaluate, for example, filings in a given jurisdiction when it is unclear what hasn’t been made available for searching?

II.        Publicly-Available Court Websites

  • A trial court’s offering of documents online is not necessarily a question of whether the court sits in a county wealthy enough to provide them.  For example, the superior court in Cincinnati, OH (sitting in Hamilton County) offers document access online, but San Diego County does not.  And one can view civil dockets from Dallas, TX, but not from Denver, CO.  There seems to be something other than wealth or the political inclinations of the jurisdiction at play.  Perhaps it is a matter of prioritization by the state legislature or judiciary, or maybe even the serendipity of having companies nearby that can get databases up and running.  Certainly, jurisdictions with well-established eFiling programs have a leg up on putting documents online; but, even in jurisdictions with eFiling in place, it is not always the case that dockets—let alone documents—can be retrieved on the Web!
  • The quality of available dockets varies dramatically because state court clerks exercise no uniformity in document description.  It is difficult to compile a collection of complaints if various clerks label documents “pleading” or “misc. filing.”
  • Navigational problems can leave you lost at sea.  We spent a lot of time fumbling our way around some of these sites.  One wonders if it is truly “access” to records if one needs a vacation after trying to find them.

At the end of the day, we found too many gaps in coverage for anything to be considered “consistently” available online.  One first step in measuring the parameters of these disparities would seem to be a county-by-county analysis of which trial courts in which states provide online access to dockets and/or filings—either through commercial services or their public websites.  Surveys like the McCormick Tribune Foundation’s comprehensive 2007 assessment, or the commercial services’ coverage charts, are great first steps—but additional testing is required, particularly to keep such studies current.

Pondering PACER pricing

What Does It Cost to Provide Electronic Public Access to Court Records?

by Steve Schultze, Associate Director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton
US Courts have long faced a dilemma. Public access to proceedings is essential to a well-functioning democracy. On the other hand, providing public access requires expenditure of funds. Charging for access works against public access. Traditionally, these costs have been considered to be part of the general operating cost of courts, and there have been no additional fees for public access. The cost of the courthouse, the public gallery, and the bailiff are included. The administrative cost that the clerks incur in providing free public inspection of records is also covered, although the clerk may collect fees for filing actions or making physical copies.

I have been trying to understand how these practices have been translated into the networked digital era by exploring PACER, the US Courts’ system for “Public Access to Court Electronic Records.” Digital technologies have a way of pushing the cost of information dissemination toward zero, but as I observed in a recent working paper, this does not appear to be the trajectory of public access fees. Congress has provided a statutory limitation that states that the “Judicial Conference may, only to the extent necessary, prescribe reasonable fees… to reimburse expenses incurred in providing these services.” In short, you can only charge for public access services if those fees are used to, at most, cover the operating expenses for those same services. What’s more, in an accompanying conference 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.”

As described below, the Judiciary’s financial reports appear to tell a different story: In the past several years, the Judicial Conference has consistently expanded the scope of its expenditures of public access fees such that the vast majority is now spent on other services.

. . .

Introducing and Integrating Free Internet Legal Research into the Classroom

“Introducing and Integrating Free Internet Legal Research into the Classroom”

University of Miami Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2010-05

JOOTAEK LEE, University of Miami – School of Law

The Global financial crisis has been discouraging legal researchers and practitioners from accessing high-cost databases.Many legal professionals and researchers are under financial pressures mainly because of the increased kinds and cost of subscription databases such as Westlaw and Lexis; thus, many legal professionals and researchers started considering free or less expensive internet resources for their research and classes. On the other hand, the number of these free or less expensive internet resources is increasing every year, and their coverage for legal sources is also expanded. Furthermore, just as the creation of a list of hypertext links to internet resources is not an easy task anymore because of the gigantic number of resources available, so simply providing created list to the law students will likewise irresponsibly confuse and intimidate them.

First, this article attempted to define internet legal research and to show the difficulty of distinguishing internet legal research from other online searches. Next, pros and cons of free or less expensive internet resources were discussed. Lastly, this article attempted to introduce and apply usability to various internet resources, criticizing Lexis and Westlaw by the principle of usability web-design.In conclusion, the necessity and prospective plan to establish evaluation standards for free internet resources including coverage, currency, accuracy, authority, appropriateness, and perspective will be explored

Source:  LSN: University of Miami School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper
Series Vol. 4 No. 2,  04/21/2010

PACER pace picks up

PACER Service Center Maintains Busy Pace
 
The Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) System has attracted 65,000 new accounts since fiscal year 2010 began October 1, 2009, keeping the PACER Service Center busy.

At the halfway point of the fiscal year, the PACER Service Center responded to 70,000 telephone calls and 17,000 emails.
 
http://www.uscourts.gov/newsroom/2010/PACERsBusyPace.cfm

Judge says: Keep this opinion out of Westlaw and LEXIS

 Judges make decisions and write opinions.  Some opinions get published and some do not.  Unpublished opinions get unofficially published in West’s Federal Appendix and very often show up online.   And on infrequent occasions some opinions find their way into LexisNexis but not Westlaw; others are found in Westlaw but not LexisNexis.

Here’s a case that caught my eye while doing some docket searching (I drink POM Wonderful, so that’s why it stood out).

On December 21, 2009 Judge A. Howard Matz, of the United States District Court for the Central District of California, issued an 7-page order in the case of POM Wonderful LLC v. Welch Foods, Inc..   This opinion includes, among other things, a discussion of standing under the California Unfair Competition Act and the California False Advertising Act.  At the end of the document, the judge writes:  “This Order is not intended for publication or for inclusion in the databases of Westlaw or LEXIS.” (emphasis mine)

A quick search of Bloomberg Law dockets produces at least a dozen other orders from this same judge with this same language.

So what about Bloomberg Law.com?  Or Google Scholar?  Or Fastcase?  Justia?  May any/all of them include the order?

Or is it just the strength of the Wexis duopoly and the judge really means he does not want the order published online anywhere.

LexisNexis and Westlaw have been the big players for decades.  But Google really could be a game-changer.  As a review article in the March 8, 2010 issue of The Recorder (“Worthy Adversary”) by Oliver Benn of Google Scholar points out:

If Google wants to devote its resources to addressing its current limitations, the future of legal research could become very different.  Many courts accept briefs electronically.  Why not hyperlink cited cases in the brief to the cases’ free Google pages?

And getting back to POM Wonderful, apparently it is available in LexisNexis and Westlaw, despite the judge’s request that it not be (please see comment from Bev Butula).

Brother, can you spare $1,000?

In the age of ever-increasing price tags it can take a lot to cause sticker shock, but I got just that when I assisted a faculty member in requesting photocopies of a lengthy case file from a trial level court.  The final bill was just under $1000.  An amount that doesn’t crack top-ten lists for outrageously priced products, but not a small amount of money either.  Especially when you consider that court records like these are public record.

It begs the question, as part of the public record how publicly accessible are court records? Should “public record” in an increasingly digital world mean a trip to a court house door (possibly states away) or a photocopy bill in the triple (or more) digits?  Neither are easily answered, but both should be considered as we begin to assess the state of public access to primary sources of law and the materials that go in to making them.

A note: I know requests like this are commonplace for many librarians and researchers, but this was my first time getting to the nitty-gritty of requesting a whole case file and doing the math on its cost.  Everyone I spoke to at the court was extremely helpful and they were able to fulfill the request even more quickly than they initially forecasted.

Ms. Wayne Goes to Washington

The library’s Erika Wayne is in Washington right now.

Erika is attending the Gov 2.0 Summit, “The Platform for Change,” where our friend and hero Carl Malamud will be presenting his paper “By the People…”

Erika is also hand-delivering our Improve PACER petition to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts!

Erika Wayne is being  joined by Terry Martin from Texas/Harvard and Kumar Jayasuriya from Georgetown in making the presentation to Michel Ishakian at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. 

In addition, Erika has meetings with Ric Davis and Mike Wash from the GPO and with staff members from the Judiciary Committee, Appropriations Committee, and from Senator Lieberman’s office to discuss the petition.

And Erika starts her day on Friday with a visit to the West Wing and breakfast at the White House mess as a special guest of one of the president’s special assistants!

Next week Erika will have an op-ed in the National Law Journal about PACER, “What Public Access?.”

The most effective way to teach law students how to conduct legal research is to provide hands-on training, but one of the most important tools, PACER, is off limits.

Geeks seek to make the law Googleable; RECAP in WSJ

Buried on page W13 of today’s Wall Street Journal  is a must-read piece by Katherine Mangu-Ward, “Transparency Chic.”

As the author makes clear:

. . . no aspect of government remains more locked down than the secretive, hierarchical judicial branch. Digital records of court filings, briefs and transcripts sit behind paywalls like Lexis and Westlaw. Legal codes and judicial documents aren’t copyrighted, but governments often cut exclusive distribution deals, rendering other access methods a bit legally questionable. . . .

Which leads her to discuss RECAP:

. . . [Stephen Schultz, Tim Lee and Harlan Wu] whipped up a sleek little add-on to the popular Firefox Internet browser called RECAP (PACER spelled backward). Legit users of the federal court system download it. Then each time they drop eight pennies, it deposits a copy of the page in the free Internet archive. This data joins other poached information, all of which is formatted, relabeled and made searchable—the kind of customer service government tends to skimp on. . . .

This might be the first mainstream press mention of RECAP, which is something we are all abuzz about here.

The author of the Wall Street Journal piece, Katherine Mangu-Ward, a senior editor at Reason magazine, is apparently a bit of a geek herself, giving a Twitter shoutout to those who helped her write the piece:

@kmanguward Thanks @binarybits @carlmalamud @cshirky @evwayne for info, perspective, and snappy quotes in “Transparency Chic” http://tinyurl.com/navyvj

@evwayne is, of course, our very own Erika Wayne who was interviewed for the piece.