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Firefox Plugin Liberates Paywalled Court Records 145

Timothy B. Lee writes "If you want to access federal court records, you're often forced to use PACER, a cumbersome, paywalled Web site run by the federal judiciary. My colleagues and I at Princeton's Center for IT Policy have released a new Firefox extension called RECAP that allows users to automatically upload the documents they download from PACER into a public archive hosted by the Internet Archive. It also saves users money by automatically notifying them if a document they're searching for is available for free from the public archive. Over time, we hope to build a comprehensive, free repository of federal court records that's available to everyone."
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Firefox Plugin Liberates Paywalled Court Records

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  • What's also interesting about this plugin is that the site it uploads them to, public.resource.org, also runs audits and its CEO, Carl Malamud, sends that audit data back to the Clerk of the Court [scribd.com]. The last page of that letter has transgressions by presiding judge!


    Perhaps most shocking are items such as the list submitted by D.C. Attorney Ronald L. Drake who decided he wasn't being paid on time by the D.C. schools and thus raised his rates retroactively from $390/hour to $425/hour, submitting as evidence the names, home addresses, ages and social security numbers of 67 children.

    I hope every judge in the District of Columbia knows about that. What's even more humorous is that Carl Malamud includes a hyperlink [findlaw.com] in that letter to FindLaw in case you wish to contact Mr. Drake.

    And the response informs Malamud that it's taken care of [scribd.com] with the SSNs redacted and the documents removed from public display. I wonder how long public.resource.org and Scribd have to demonstrate their usefulness before federal court documents are uploaded there by default in addition to being available through the court?

    On a related note, I read in a Google blog [blogspot.com] that you can now release your works under Creative Commons on books.google.com and they happen to have Carl Malamud's A World's Fair for the Global Village [google.com] available for download. And if you wish to release your works under the Creative Commons, Google will host them.

  • well (Score:5, Informative)

    by nomadic ( 141991 ) <nomadicworld.gmail@com> on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:27AM (#29064611) Homepage
    Speaking as a lawyer who spends an inordinate amount of time going through multiple PACER systems to download filings, this is good news, however it would probably take a few years for this to be useful for most lawyers. And outside the more prominent cases the chances are slim that someone else has used this to get a document you want.

    And the interface itself isn't THAT cumbersome, though it could be slightly better (for example, it doesn't allow searching by judge, which is annoying when you're trying to see how the judge you're before ruled before). Also each district has its own independent PACER, which always seemed somewhat inefficient to me.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:39AM (#29064755)

    And you're wrong if you think that it's subsidized by your tax dollars:

    From PACER's FAQ [uscourts.gov]:

    Why are there user fees for PACER?
    In 1988, the Judiciary sought funding through the appropriation process to establish the capability to provide electronic public access services. Rather than appropriating additional funds for this purpose, Congress specifically directed the Judiciary to fund that initiative through the collection of user fees. As a result, the program relies exclusively on fee revenue

  • by mariushm ( 1022195 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:42AM (#29064781)

    Once the document has been scanned and introduced in the system, it costs almost nothing to distribute it.

    You have almost fixed costs each month on people producing the documents, bandwidth, datacenter colocation, and some additional small costs on maintenance so a fee of 3 cents per page is not justified, especially if a document can get to hundreds of pages. You already run the system for years now, so you should know from statistics how many pages are read or how many documents are transferred and you should especially know how much it costs you overall so they could implement something like 50 cents / 1$ per document and still cover their yearly costs plus a very small profit.

  • by DrgnDancer ( 137700 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:43AM (#29064791) Homepage

    They aren't "subverting the will of the judiciary". The judiciary isn't charging thousands of dollars a month and making a huge profit off of this. They're charging a few cents a page to cover the expense of keeping the program running. If someone else can and will store the same documents for free, it's less load for them to deal with. These are all public record documents that you could see for free if you went down to the courthouse and asked for them (though they'd probably charge you for copies, to cover those costs), it's not like these guys are breaking into the courthouse systems and raping and pillaging the information. It's public domain stuff, being stored in the public domain.

  • by Kidro ( 1283296 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:47AM (#29064831)
    FOIA allows for the charging of fees to process requests.

    From http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/87466.pdf [state.gov]
    "Will I be charged for making a FOIA request?
    The Department of State is entitled to charge a fee to recover the costs of document search, duplication and, in commercial cases, review. Under certain conditions, documents may be furnished without charge or at a reduced charge."
  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:05AM (#29065023) Journal

    I think it makes sense. Instead of spending tax dollars on something very few people (in contrast to the total number of taxpayers,) it's paid with by a per-use fee. If anything there's probably more tax-paid government services that could be handled this way.

    You are correct. But I think you're overlooking people that would benefit from this. People like you and I that might be good with Google and interested in generic Federal Court history, Academics looking to study it and so forth.

    Check out this Ars Technica article from April entitled "The case against PACER: tearing down the courts' paywall" [arstechnica.com], it says:

    An important obstacle to improving PACER is the court's myopic focus on the system's current users. A recent article in the federal courts' internal newsletter promised to "survey the courts, litigants, attorneys, the media, and bulk data collectors-the people who use PACER." Conspicuously absent from the list are academics, non-profit organizations, and members of the general public: groups that would benefit from a more open PACER but which are discouraged from participating by the paywall and primitive search tools.

    While I agree that at first glance a select few need this service, I also recognize that there are a select few who would benefit greatly from removing the paywall. Now, we can't come up with cold hard numbers to monetarily weigh one group against the other and optimize our tax dollars. But we can all use tools like this Firefox extension to satisfy the tax payers and help out the academics and curious general public.

  • by kyofunikushimi ( 769712 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:29AM (#29065333) Homepage
    Within reason, of course:

    "In 2006, the fund received $447.8 million, but they could only figure out what to do with $301.2 million, the so-called âoeobligated balance.â In other words, they had a âoesignificant unobligated balanceâ of $146.6 million. At 8 cents per page for a PACER Document, they could give away 1.8 billion pages of documents to the public and still have all the money they need to pay for their computers."

    See question/answer #9 in the Recycling FAQ for a nice graph and a source of that quote: http://pacer.resource.org/recycling.html [resource.org]

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:31AM (#29065371)

    hese sort of redaction failures are important to know about; however, Malamud's letter to the clerk of court betrays a severe deficiency in his understanding of the courts and how they work. The Clerk of Court cannot redact filings. It just does not work that way. Filers must (and are required to) redact filings. The Clerk of Court must also accept any filing. S/he can't turn it away because of a defect in form or substance. The most the clerk can do is notify chambers (the judge) of the issue. The judge can then order the filing sealed as well as a redacted filing from the originator of the document.

    In addition, contrary to everything you are reading in this thread, court opinions are free on PACER. Anything that sets forth the reasoned opinion of the court is not charged. Most PACER fees come from people reading mundane scheduling orders and routine motions made by counsel. Yes -- these should be (and are) available to the public. They are even free if you visit the courthouse -- but the system that runs them did not appear out of thin air. PACER fees *do not* pay staff salaries or local court operational costs. They are used to maintain the infrastructure and development of the Case Management and Electronic Case Files system. That infratructure is complex and the software systems used to run and maintain the systems is under constant development to handle new requirements -- be they legal requirements or operational requirements.

    The biggest problem with Malamud's project (and this plugin) is not the archival of public documents. I don't think anyone has a problem with that. The biggest problem is that it is woefully incomplete and someone might be under the mistaken impression that their project is anywhere near what Malamud claims it is. Their "vast repository' of documents contains fewer that 20% of the number of filings in one medium to large court out of 96 district courts (let alone Bankruptcy courts, which have much higher volume). The amount of actual data available from PACER dwarfs their available resources and is growing at a geometric pace compared to their relatively static growth. Take a look at their repository [resource.org] and just imagine how much has changed since this small slice of the whole pie was carved out. There is no way a few public users can keep up with hundreds of attorneys filing thousands of documents each day in all these courts. It cannot be done that way -- and they should make it clear that this is resource is nothing more than a tiny window on the whole.

  • by John Hasler ( 414242 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:33AM (#29065409) Homepage
    PACER gets its fee for every page downloaded from it. The material is public domain. You could go down to the courthouse, photograph the pages, and put them up on the Web without paying a penny. This project reduces the load on PACER in proportion to the reduction in PACER revenue. What's wrong with that? And why do you assume that only the rich need Federal court documents?
  • by Jurily ( 900488 ) <jurily@g m a i l . com> on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:38AM (#29065463)

    This is wonderful news. Now I can save $2.40 on my various sexual harassment lawsuits.

    It's not the amount that matters here, it's the principle. Public records should be public, and by that I mean freely available and easily searchable. And "easily searchable" is actually an intrenational standard in the age of Google.

  • by MarkvW ( 1037596 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @02:22PM (#29068851)

    "I would rather eliminate the res judicata that forces attorneys to unload a full larder of motions at trial just to make sure nothing gets locked out at appeal."

    That is just plain silly. If you didn't have res judicata, the attorneys would file even more paper in multiple lawsuits instead of just one lawsuit. Furthermore, the other side would never have the relief of knowing that the case is really over.

    You don't want causes of action to be ZOMBIES that are never dead! You want finality!!!

  • by chadplusplus ( 1432889 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @03:53PM (#29070019)
    Model Rules of Professional Conduct 1.6, section a states that "A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent, the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation or the disclosure is permitted by paragraph (b)." Hence, the attorney's restriction on discussing or distributing information relating to his client is NOT limited to what would otherwise be commonly referred to as "confidential" information. Even if the information in question, including the content of public filings, is already within the public consciousness, the lawyer is still prohibited from furthering the spread of that information. For instance, a lawyer should not take a copy of the complaint he just filed at court and put it up on a billboard (unless otherwise required by the applicable rules).

    As an attorney who has used PACER, I have logged onto PACER to download copies of judicial noticies, orders, pleadings from the other parties involved in the case, etc... Those orders, pleadings, notices are arguably information relating to my client and accordingly, I am prohibited from distributing that information.

    You mention lawyers studying other cases. While it is true that lawyers "study other cases", it may not be what you think. I suppose the occasional lawyer will look through cases to see how a particularly skilled lawyer drafted his pleadings. Or, for instance, I have personally sat in on hearings in which skilled lawyers were participating. But this is not what is meant by "studying cases".

    "Studying cases" almost ubiquitously refers to the study of higher court opinions, such as US Supreme Court opinions or opinions from the highest courts of each state. Those opinions are published into typically free archives available at each respective court's website. Searching those opinions, however, is not as easy and is typically a "pay-for" service, but not through PACER.

    Again, my own experience and the experience of my associates tells me that lawyers most often access PACER to access pleadings in their own current cases, not for academic review. Accordingly, the information they view at PACER falls within "client information", the spread of which by the attorney is frowned upon by the ABA.

"No, no, I don't mind being called the smartest man in the world. I just wish it wasn't this one." -- Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, WATCHMEN