I was flipping through legal newspapers to gather some to show to our advanced legal research class, when I came upon a truly alarming letter to the editor in the San Francisco DailyJournal by Judge Terence L. Bruiniers. In his letter, “Protecting Personal Data From Online Access,” Judge Bruiniers writes:
. . .
As a trial judge I was shocked to see how often attorneys would routinely and cavalierly attach documents as exhibits to their pleadings containing not only social security numbers and financial account numbers but credit card numbers and the like — and not just of opposing parties, but frequently of their own clients. Family law practitioners seemed to be among the worse offenders, attaching documents like tax returns to their public pleadings.
. . .
Terence L. Bruiniers
1st District Court of Appeal
San Francisco Daily Journal, Tuesday, September 28, 2010, p. 7
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.
As summer associates struggle to answer obscure research questions over the next couple of months, they may find an answer to their late-night prayers in JD Supra, a free online service that provides access to legal documents including memoranda, briefs and unpublished court decisions.
According to its associated blog, JDScoop.com, JD Supra also has contributors in China, from Liang Yongwe, a Beijing-based firm specializing in FDI and overseas direct investment; Italy, from Mantova-based Studio legale Tedioli offering bankruptcy guidance; Spain, from Madrid-based Goni y Cajigas Abogados providing M&A advice; South Africa, from DE Professional Consultants, with offices in various countries advising on tax matters; and, various firms in the United Kingdom and Canada.
. . .
“Ultimately, its utility will end up depending on number of contributors and users,” says Mark Kindall of nine-lawyer Schatz Nobel Izard, based in Hartford, Conn. He highlights that while court decisions are easy to find, briefs with attachments are much more difficult to source. Schatz Nobel has uploaded 79 documents, including pleadings and decisions from courts across the United States