A Worthy Bill of Note: The Open PACER Act of 2013

“To provide the public with open access to electronic federal court records.”

Please see here for more information, including by way of some explanation:

The Open PACER Act provides for free and open access to electronic federal court records. The courts currently offer an expensive and difficult-to-use web site. They charge more than their cost of offering the service—more than Congress has authorized—violating the E-Government Act of 2002This [proposed] Act seeks to, once and for all, compel the courts to fulfill Congress‘ longstanding vision of making this information “freely available to the greatest extent possible.”


PACER was designed before the turn of the [21st] century, and hasn’t been updated much. It is difficult to search, confusing to use, and is not indexed by search engines like Google. The biggest problem is that it charges for access. Every time you search, view a docket report, or download a document, you pay. These little charges add up quickly and make it impossible to do large-scale searching or analysis. This is bad for democracy.

Cross-posted on Law Library Blog.

Social Security Numbers & Other Confidential Info Still Available in Federal Court Opinions

As mentioned in today’s Law Librarian Blog, it appears — per a helpful investigatory audit of Public.Resource.org, an organization headed up by Carl Malamud, who recently (October 20, 2008) presented to the Advanced Legal Research class at Stanford Law School — that Social Security Numbers (SSNs) and other confidential and sensitive personal identification information remain available in federal court opinions contrary to the E-Government Act of 2002.

Finding and Citing the ‘Unimportant’ Decisions of the U.S. Courts of Appeals

“Finding and Citing the ‘Unimportant’ Decisions of the U.S. Courts of Appeals” 
Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-015


PETER W. MARTIN, Cornell Law School

A Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure that took effect at the end of 2006 overturned past policies in several circuits that banned or severely limited citation of unpublished or nonprecedential opinions. All U.S. Court of Appeals decisions issued after January 1, 2007, published or not, may be cited. One of the objections raised by those opposed to the rule rested on concern about access to such opinions, which constitute more than 80% of the annual total. The Judicial Conference committee that drafted and pressed for adoption of the rule pointed out that federal legislation called on the circuit courts to place all their decisions, published or not, on the Web in text-searchable format. Wrote the committee, chaired by Justice Samuel Alito (then a Third Circuit judge), [T]he E-Government Act … makes unpublished opinions widely available at little or no cost.

Despite that legislative mandate, very real challenges confront anyone seeking to take advantage of the new rule who is unable or unwilling to pay the cost of Westlaw or Lexis. The paper surveys the challenges of searching for, retrieving, and citing unpublished or nonprecedential decisions of the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals without using those costly services. It also sets out a few straightforward steps the federal judiciary might take that would fulfill the promise of the E-Government Act’s provisions.

From: LSN Law & Courts Vol. 2 No. 25,  05/14/2008


Decisions, opinions and orders – what’s the diff?

A reference question that comes up every now and then is “what’s the difference between a judicial opinion and a judicial decision.”  That’s an easy one, thanks to Elyse H. Fox’s wonderful The Legal Research Dictionary:  from Advance Sheets to Pocket Parts, Second Edition (I love this reference book!).  She defines, “Opinion – Technically, the written statement of the court explaining its decision . . . ”

Fuzzier to me has been the distinction between an order and an opinion.  A new law review article, with an intriguing title, “Docketology, District Courts, and Doctrine,” by David A. Hoffman, Alan J. Izenman, and Jeffrey R. Lidicker, offers a really interesting analysis following an “historical detour” look at U.S. District Court publication.  Here’s the opinion/order distinction they draw:

     “The E-Government Act of 2002 changed this distribution system by requiring federal courts to post all of their ‘opinions’ on the website, regardless of whether the opinions were designated . . . as published or unpublished. The Judicial Conference defines ‘written opinion’ as ‘any document issued by a judge or judges of the court . . . that sets forth a reasoned explanation for a court’s decision.’ . . . The databases harvest such opinions and, after adding codes like Keycites, make them available for a fee.

     “Thus in theory if a disposition is on Westlaw or Lexis, a judge has determined that it ‘sets forth a reasoned explanation for a court’s decision.’  If that modern disposition is not on Westlaw or Lexis, the judge has decided not to explain it fully.  Texts that judges do not designate as opinions will remain unseen, except for those individuals who are willing to pay to access the docket, or come to the courthouse in person.”

     “We are thus comfortable distinguishing between opinions and orders with a simple definition:

    For our purposes, an ‘opinion’ is any judicial disposition on Westlaw or Lexis; an ‘order’ is any disposition that is not.”

85 Washington University Law Review 681, 693 (2007)