Selling Others’ Briefs, Illustrated

To better illustrate some of the points made by Paul in his posting Selling others’ Briefs, Bryan L. Jarrett (our former student and now an associate at Jones Day) has given us permission to post two of the charts he created for his paper “Vending Appellate Briefs.”  (To recap, Bryan’s paper surveyed the practices of sixteen state jurisdictions and DC — the ten largest ABA jurisdictions (by membership size) and seven jurisdictions that did not supply copies of appellate briefs to commercial vendors.  The data was gathered in 2010.)

The first table (“Table I: The Ten Largest Jurisdictions”) displays five questions (for the jurisdictions of NY, CA, TX, FL, IL, DC, MA, OH, PA and NJ): do these jurisdictions provide appellate briefs online; do they have an arrangement with a vendor (Westlaw, Lexis) for the distribution of briefs; do these jurisdictions send appellate briefs directly to vendors; is the exchange of briefs quid pro quo; and have any attorneys objected.

The second table (“Table II: Jurisdictions that Do Not Supply Their Briefs to Vendors”) focuses on seven jurisdictions (NV, NH, NM, OK, VT, UT, and WY) and addresses the same questions as in Table I.

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.

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.

Judicial Information Management in an Electronic Age: Old Standards, New Challenges

“Judicial Information Management in an Electronic Age: Old Standards, New Challenges”

Federal Courts Law Review, Forthcoming

PETER A. WINN, University of Washington School of Law

Under well established law, information in court records is open to the public, but it may be sealed upon a fact-based showing either that the information is not a matter of legitimate public concern or is sufficiently sensitive to need such protection. Under the former paper-based court record system, however, routine violations of these publcity standards were widely tolerated. At the same time, the practical obscurity of paper provided a default privacy benefit for negligently unsealed sensitive information. With the introduction of electonic filing, old improper sealing practices are now increasingly being exposed and criticised; while the dealth of practical obscurity has caused individuals with sensitive information in court files, to be increasingly exposed to harm. This article argues that restoring an appropriate homeostasis to the judicial information eco-system, where legitimate privacy and publicity interests are both protected, does not require replacing established common law standards; but it will require the adoption of new legal procedures, better use of information technologies, and more careful training of judges and lawyers. Ultimately, to properly achieve this goal, the existing common law adversarial system of information mangement will need to be supplemented by a new administrative model.

Source:  LSN Information Privacy Law Vol. 2 No. 34,  10/07/2009

Internet Materials in Opinions: Citations and Hyperlinking

From The Third Branch

July 2009, Vol. 41, Number 7, p. 9

 

Internet Materials in Opinions: Citations and Hyperlinking

The Judicial Conference has issued a series of “suggested practices” to assist courts in the use of Internet materials in opinions. The recommendations follow a pilot project conducted by circuit librarians who captured and preserved webpages cited in opinions over a six-month period.

The Internet often seems to pervade everyday life, giving us answers, matches, recommendations, definitions, and citations. But the information on the Internet can be as ephemeral as yesterday’s blog entry. Websites can change or disappear altogether.

“Judges are citing to and using Internet-based information in their opinions with increasing frequency,” Judicial Conference Secretary Jim Duff wrote recently to chief judges. “Unlike printed authority, Internet information is often not maintained at a permanent location, and a cited webpage can be changed or deleted at any time. Obviously, this has significant implications for the reliability of citations in court opinions.”

The Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management (CACM) began the pilot project, conducted by circuit libraries, and received and endorsed the recommendations of an ad hoc working group of circuit librarians. In approving those recommendations in March 2009, the Judicial Conference agreed that all Internet materials cited in final opinions be considered for preservation, while each judge should retain the discretion to decide whether the specific cited resource should be captured and preserved. The Conference directed the Administrative Office to work with the CACM Committee to develop guidelines “to assist judges in making the determination of which citations to preserve.”

The guidelines suggest that, if a webpage is cited, chambers staff preserve the citation by downloading a copy of the site’s page and filing it as an attachment to the judicial opinion in the Judiciary’s Case Management/Electronic Case Files System. The attachment, like the opinion, would be retrievable on a non-fee basis through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system. When considering whether to cite Internet sources, judges are reminded that some litigants, particularly pro se litigants, may not have access to a computer.

The Judicial Conference also recommended that the Judiciary avoid including in final opinions working hyperlinks that lead directly to materials contained within commercial vendor databases to prevent a stated or implied endorsement or preferential treatment. To the extent that a court determines that such hyperlinks are to be used in opinions, it is recommended that an appropriate disclaimer be provided.