Selling others’ briefs

Following up on George’s post “A pair of lawyers . . . sue West and LexisNexis for reproducing their court filings,” I took a second look at a directed research paper a student did for me a couple of years ago on the subject of vending appellate briefs.  The student surveyed 17 jurisdictions — 10 that provide briefs to vendors and 7 that do not.

One of the interesting take-aways from the student’s paper is the wide variety in means by which vendors have obtained briefs.  Some states have made various arrangements with vendors; others refuse to do so.  For a very few states there is a distinct quid pro quo. Past practices will change, though, as the vendors are increasingly just pulling from posted copies; unless a court rules against such a practice it will only accelerate.

California and Pennsylvania, of the surveyed jurisdictions, both have quid pro quo arrangements.  For example, in California, the state Supreme Court used to send copies of the briefs to certain public law libraries but stopped the practice when it made a deal with Court Records Service (later acquired by West Publishing) whereby the court receives microfiche copies in return for providing the briefs.

Massachusetts has what seems like an odd arrangement whereby briefs are scanned once at the Clerk’s Office, then sent to Westlaw, where they are scanned again and later returned.

To write the paper the student called librarians, court clerks, reporters of decisions, and the vendors.  None of the surveyed court staff members reported any attorney dissatisfaction with the practice of providing briefs to the vendors.  And in one state, the Reporter of Decisions speculated that attorneys actually liked “the free advertising.”  And many clerks were surprised that this has become an issue at all since the documents are public records.

Yes, they are public records but that doesn’t mean they are in the public domain.  Yet who wins if a court rules that Westlaw and LexisNexis are infringing authors’ copyright?  My student thinks that the attorney authors are really the only winners (if they receive royalties) and most of them have already received substantial compensation for writing these briefs and all other players (the courts, the public) are losers.   I hope that in the spirit of pro bono most attorneys will continue to make their appellate briefs available to all the world and not press ownership claims (with perhaps some sort of opt-out provision for the rare instances when, for privacy or other sensitive concerns, certain briefs should not be published).   It would also be a better world if LexisNexis and Westlaw could also take responsible pro bono actions here, as suggested by Ed Connor and not profit from the work product of those in the private sector.

Here’s the cite to my student’s paper:  Bryan Jarrett, Vending Appellate Briefs: The practice, its future, and implications if found illegal.   Submitted October 30, 2010.

Abstract:

This paper analyzes the collection and sale of appellate briefs.  It presents the findings of a survey of seventeen jurisdictions.  The paper discusses how Westlaw and LexisNexis access the briefs, whether they have structured mutually beneficial agreements with the courts that provide the briefs, whether attorneys commonly object to the sale of their briefs, the likely future of the industry, and the potential policy implications of a successful legal challenge to the industry’s practices.

Authentication of Primary Legal Materials and Pricing Options

Always worth reading is Intersect Alert, the one published by the SLA San Francisco Bay Region Chapter (and not to be confused with Chuck Bartowski’s Intersect).

This item about a new California Office of Legislative Counsel white paper is from the most recent issue:

Authentication of Primary Legal Materials and Pricing Options
“The recent passage of the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act (UELMA) has brought to the forefront the issue of costs of authenticating primary legal materials in electronic format. This white paper briefly reviews five methods of electronic authentication. These methods are based on trustworthiness, file types, effort to implement, and volume of electronic documents to be authenticated. Six sample solutions are described and their relative costs are compared. The white paper also frames the legal landscape and background of authentication for primary legal materials in electronic format, and provides context and points to applicable resources. The aim of this collective effort is to promote the understanding of costs related to authentication and invite further discussion on the issue.”

http://www.mnhs.org/preserve/records/legislativerecords/docs_pdfs/CA_Authentication_WhitePaper_Dec2011.pdf

Finding History in a Drawer

In 1875, a jury committed Mary Todd Lincoln to an insane asylum.  This week, the Chicago Tribune reported that two Illinois State Supreme Court justices discovered her trial papers still on file with the Cook County Clerk!  The Clerk’s Office will be donating them to the Lincoln museum, but we hope the story does not end there.  Like many others, we’ve previously posted about the cultural heritage reflected in state court files.  Some of the stories told in these documents are historically significant, like Mary Todd Lincoln’s commitment, or John Wesley Hardin’s murder trial (see this Texas Task Force report).  Many stories, however, are just minor threads in life’s tapestry: divorces, probates, business disputes.  Whether the story is big or small, the court records that tell it may be irreplaceable.

Each state’s preservation rules differ.  Some place the retention determination in the hands of state libraries or archives, some issue mandatory retention schedules based on the nature of the action, and some afford the clerk of court discretion to dispose of files after prescribed time periods.  Even if a clerk of court wanted to save everything, storage expenses and space constraints make this impossible.  The costs of digitizing every paper record are prohibitive.  As cultural institutions may not be interested in less noteworthy files, many are noticed for destruction.  Provided that a state’s rules allow it, however, law libraries may be uniquely positioned to rescue these files — preserving not just the documents, but also state history.  And if you spend some time digging through them all, you never know just what you might find…

Don’t Mess With Texas State Court Documents

State court case files are rife with personal and community histories that often cannot be found anywhere else.  These documents also reflect developments in the language of the law, and the procedures of our court systems.  Preserving these historical gems is increasingly important as many records face destruction due to court space and budget constraints, and the ill effects of time or the elements.  We hope to provide periodic updates here about states’ efforts to preserve such records and, on that note, want to spread the word about developments today in Texas.

Just shy of two years ago, the Texas Supreme Court established a volunteer task force of attorneys, judges, historians, document preservationists, and county and statewide officials to “develop a report that discusses statewide county preservation needs, the importance of protecting the records, and providing assistance to counties to do that.”  (See this Texas state bar blog.)  After extensive studies, the Task Force issued this report on August 31, 2011.  In addition to containing practical information for other jurisdictions similarly seeking to preserve state court files, the report contains anecdotes that scratch the surface of the kind of information at risk of being lost.

Here is an excerpt from its “Overview”:

In his classic song, Hardin Wouldn’t Run, Johnny Cash sang that outlaw John Wesley Hardin was a steadfast man. Truth is, Hardin was not so firmly fixed. After shooting Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb in Comanche County in 1874, Hardin fled Texas and headed east. Texas Ranger John B. Armstrong pursued Hardin and found him on a train outside Pensacola, Florida several years later. Armstrong overtook Hardin after Hardin got his pistols tangled up in his suspenders when he tried to draw. He was brought back to Comanche County, Texas, and put on trial before a jury of twelve citizens of the county. Bob Dylan, in his Hardin song, sang that “no crime held against him could they prove.” That is also incorrect. Unlike Jesse James and Billy the Kid, who were both gunned down, John Wesley Hardin, who killed many people in multiple states, was convicted of murder in 1878 and sentenced to prison in Huntsville, Texas.  The historical documents that record the true story about the trial and sentencing of Hardin are at risk of being stolen, destroyed, or lost . . .  The Hardin records are not unique. Thousands of other Records are stored in hundreds of Texas district and county clerk archives. Some of these facilities are excellent; some of these Records are preserved, or in the process of being preserved. But many of the oldest Records – especially those that date back to the Republic of Texas, early statehood, or the Civil War – are at risk of being lost forever, unless measures are soon taken to help district and county clerks protect them.

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.

. . .

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.

Mexican Portal for Public Documents

The Mexican government and the Federal Institute for Acces to Public Information(IFAI)  has created a portal to help with document requests under the Mexican version of FOIA (Ley de Transparencia y Acceso a la Información Pública Gobernamental)

InfoMex

https://www.infomex.org.mx/gobiernofederal/home.action

Law.gov video presentation now online!

In a January 2, 2010 op-ed in the New York Times entitled “A Nation of Do-It-Yourself Lawyers,” California Chief Justice Ronald George and New Hampshire Chief Justice John T. Broderick Jr. asked “how can we help those who are left to represent themselves in court?”

One thing we can do is make the law of the nation freely available.  Today much of the law remains behind a pay wall, often a very expensive pay wall.

There have been efforts to liberate the law — five guys at Cornell (Cornell’s Legal Information Institute), three guys at Google (Google Scholar legal opinions), and others.  The federal government has made strides too, eCFR remains a model of free, updated legal content, but as the first paragraph explains on the eCFR website disclaims, “It is not an official legal edition of the CFR.”  State government efforts are as varied as the 50 states and District of Columbia.

So what to do?

Law.gov is a campaign to identify what a national law registry should include, and to make recommendations to the policy makers on how to structure a repository of all primary legal materials (and maybe more) at all levels of government.

The Stanford Law Library hosted a Law.gov kickoff event on January 12, 2010 and the day’s events included a terrific panel discussion with Carl Malamud, Anurag Acharya (Google Scholar lead engineer) and law professor Jonathan Zittrain, moderated by Stanford Law School lecturer Roberta Morris.  We now have a streaming video link from this discussion and it’s definitely worth viewing:

http://www.law.stanford.edu/calendar/details/3717/#related_media