Free Law Project Co-Founders Named to Fastcase 50 for 2014

Last week legal publisher Fastcase included Free Law Project co-founders, Brian Carver and Michael Lissner on the company’s annual list of “Fastcase 50” award recipients. As their press release explains, “The Fastcase 50 award recognizes 50 of the smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries, and leaders in the law.”

Michael and I are humbled by and grateful for this recognition. We’re especially thrilled to see individuals we have worked with included on this year’s list, such as:

  • Frank Bennett, who created the Free Law Ferret, adapting some of CourtListener’s citation-finding code to JavaScript and enabling users of the extension to find citations on any website and then get the documents from CourtListener.
  • Jake Heller, CEO of CaseText, whose team there has frequently been a helpful sounding board when Mike and I are thinking through the interesting questions that arise when trying to put useful legal research tools on the web.
  • Colin Starger, of the University of Baltimore School of Law, with whom we’ve had great conversations about citations, metadata, and bulk downloads, not topics of conversation that everyone has as much experience with as Colin!
  • David Zvenyach, General Counsel to the Council of the District of Columbia, who saw that we hadn’t gotten around to adding scrapers for the D.C. Court of Appeals or the District Court for the District of Columbia to juriscraper and wrote them for us.

These individuals were obviously recognized for their broader work, but we were excited to see those with whom we’ve already made a connection getting much-deserved recognition. Especially since we all join a distinguished group of past winners, many of whom we’ve also received advice or assistance from, including: 2013 awardees Bob Berring, Josh Blackman, Sara Frug, Tim Hwang, Dan Katz, Dan Lewis, Eric Mill, Josh Tauberer, and 2012 awardees Jerry Goldman, Waldo Jaquith, Peter Martin, Elmer Masters, and 2011 awardees Monica Bay, Tom Bruce, Sarah Glassmeyer, John Joergensen, Carl Malamud, Rob Richards, and Tim Stanley. At various times we’ve been inspired by, gotten advice from, or gotten help from all these folks, among others, so we think they deserve some credit for any headway we’ve made on the problems we’re tackling, while we’re happy to take all the blame for any missteps or not making more progress faster.

The only problem with these lists is that Fastcase CEO, Ed Walters, should be on there too. Thanks, Ed!

–Brian

New Homepage and a CourtListener Revamp

Home Page ScreenshotWe’re happy to share today that we’ve completed a revamp of the CourtListener website to make it more polished, easier to use and easier to learn. There are a handful of changes we’re really happy about and that we’ve wanted to do for a long time.

First, of course, is our new homepage. The new homepage is designed to showcase our latest material, to make new opinions easy to find, and to better introduce CourtListener to new users. The most striking change in the homepage is that at its center it now has a huge search box where you can place queries, and if you’re an advanced user, you can press the “Advanced” button, and it will show you all of the search facets that we support, from Case Name to Citation Count.

The homepage also ushers in a change that’s been in the works for some time – we’re finally ordering our results by “Relevance” instead of “Newest First”. This change was made possible by the improvements we’ve made to our relevance engine over the past year, and is one we’re really excited about. We expect that as you use the new homepage, you’ll find the relevance engine to surprise and delight you.

The next major change that has come with the revamp is a new tour of the website that you can take to learn more about its features. In the footer there’s a link to kick off the tour and we’ll be experimenting with different ways to promote it to new users over the next couple of weeks. We are also working on a video that we expect will help people learn how to use the site.

The final change that we’re rolling out (aside from our new FAQ and About pages) are social links at the bottom of every page. We know people use different tools to stay up to date, so in addition to this blog, we also want to make sure that you can follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

Our RECAP partnership with Princeton University’s CITP

Today Free Law Project announced that it is partnering with Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy to manage the operation and development of the RECAP platform. Most readers here will know that the RECAP platform utilizes free browser extensions to improve the experience of using PACER, the electronic public access system for U.S. federal courts, and crowdsources the creation of a free and open archive of public court records.

I have been frustrated with PACER for a long time: as a member of the public, as a law student, as a litigator, as an academic, and as one trying to build systems for public access to court documents. I’ve been frustrated by the price per page, by the price for searches with no results, by the shocking price for inadvertent searches with thousands of results, by the occasional price for judicial opinions that are supposed to be free, by the price in light of the fact that Congress made clear that the Judicial Conference “may, only to the extent necessary, prescribe reasonable fees… for access to information available through automatic data processing equipment” when it has been demonstrated time and again that PACER revenues grossly exceed the “extent necessary,” and by the 2011 increase in those prices. I’ve been frustrated by the search interface or lack thereof. I’ve wanted, for a very long time, to be able to conduct free full-text searches across the entirety of the PACER database. The research questions I could ask and answer with such a system. Sigh… But most of all, I’ve been frustrated with PACER for a long time because it creates a wall between the public and the law.

So when CITP announced the launch of RECAP in August 2009 I was overjoyed and I became an early adopter. I reported bugs and suggested enhancements on RECAP’s now-defunct “getsatisfaction” community. I told anyone that would listen what a brilliant idea it was to involve everyone in the effort to create a free public archive of these public court records. I felt empowered by the idea that my own browser could become a tool in the effort for greater public access to the law. I got something approximating a crush (techno-crush?) on Steve Schultze, Harlan Yu, Timothy Lee, and Ed Felten, for the brilliance behind this creation. (Please go install the browser extensions if you haven’t already! For Firefox; For Chrome.)

Steve, Harlan, Tim, and others that have worked on RECAP have now all moved on from Princeton to fabulous careers. When Steve and Harlan began discussing with us the idea of Free Law Project taking up the slack created by their busy new adventures, Michael and I were immediately enthusiastic. RECAP is a perfect complement to Free Law Project’s existing efforts. The first version of CourtListener covered only the federal circuit courts and the Supreme Court of the United States. We’ve been working recently to roll out coverage of the courts of last resort in all the states (not quite there yet…) but have largely held off on tackling “the PACER problem” presented by the federal district courts. In part, we knew we could wait on this because RECAP was already addressing it about as well as anyone could. We have long assumed that we would at some point look to merge the RECAP documents with our existing documents, and knew because we focused on different courts, these would be largely complementary sets of documents. Well, the time to tackle that merger has arrived, and in the process we hope to provide a long-term home for RECAP maintenance and improvement.

However, to do everything we envision with RECAP and its existing document archive is going to require additional funding. (You can always donate!) Therefore, we expect in the coming weeks to approach anyone who is known to write large checks with this idea: Support us in creating the largest freely-downloadable collection of court documents that has ever been assembled on the internet, and in the process, help ensure the future of public access to the law’s killer app: RECAP.

We’re looking forward to it.

P.S. Please follow @RECAPtheLaw. We intend to start tweeting there.

See also, Steve Schultze’s post at Freedom to Tinker.

–Brian

Detecting Judicial Corrections

One of the goals of the CourtListener platform is to enable others to analyze judicial opinions. To that end we provide all of our data as bulk downloads and try to archive any opinion that a court publishes.

On some occasions, this results in a slightly confusing search result like the following:

double result

We realize having an opinion in the system two times can be a bit confusing, but the reason this happens is because courts will sometimes make corrections to a slip opinion after its initial release. Sometimes the new version of the slip opinion will make note of the change, other times the court makes this change silently, perhaps hoping that the public either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.

Usually these are minor corrections, but occasionally not. For example, in the case above, Justice Scalia made a mistake in his dissent, completely flipping the position of the EPA in the case he references. Such significant alterations are a rare occurrence and it has been widely highlighted in the press. Many systems will silently remove opinions that have such errors, but we have found that even studying the corrections made by courts is something that interests some academic researchers.

For example, Peter W. Martin, the Jane M.G. Foster Professor of Law, Emeritus, former dean of Cornell Law School, and co-founder of Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (LII), has written on this topic more than once and noted CourtListener’s usefulness for detecting these sorts of judicial corrections. Based on his analysis of this practice he also provides suggestions to the courts on how to handle revisions in a world of digital publication.

As our platform progresses, a goal is to begin automatically identifying items such as the above and presenting the differences intelligently. While this sort of detail is often inconsequential, both this recent instance and some that Professor Martin describes show that at times they can be notable and even newsworthy, changing the meaning of a portion of the court’s opinion completely.

LVI 2014 Call for Abstracts

The Law via the Internet (LVI) 2014 conference will be held this year September 30 – October 1 in Nairobi, Kenya. The theme will be “The Impact of open access to legal information: Bridging the gap between accessibility and usefulness.” The call for abstracts is now available from the LVI 2014 website.

It is Long Past Time for Free Online Access to the Law

Video of Brian Carver’s talk at Stanford Law School on January 16, 2014, entitled “It is Long Past Time for Free Online Access to the Law: Free Law Project.”

CourtListner’s REST API Featured on Programmable Web

Yesterday Mark Boyd published a great story about the CourtListener API on Programmable Web. Mark talked to several of the API’s early adopters and really learned what the issues are and how people are addressing them. Thanks to all those quoted in the story for taking the time to talk with Mark about the CourtListener REST API. We’re excited about how you all are already using the API and hope to continue improving it. (There’s nothing like people hitting your website thousands of times a day to shake loose hard-to-find bugs…and we’ve had some of that too and hope to get any and all bugs resolved ASAP!)

I particularly like Waldo Jaquith‘s sentiment quoted in the article that 24 months from now we will find it quaint that anyone found this interesting. I sure hope so! That will mean we’ve made many advances and the thought of not having an API for United States case law will seem unimaginable. Unfortunately, free programmatic access–even digital access–to U.S. case law has been not much more than a fanciful dream for a long time in the legal technology community. For years we’ve been like a textile industry that knows the cotton gin exists and even knows how to build one, and yet no one ever has built one. We now have in place a key tool necessary to enable a revolution. We also need the raw materials: the court documents themselves, and we’ll continue to work on that until we can confidently say we’ve got that fully covered, but in 24 months I think we’ll look back and not only find it quaint that this was interesting in 2013, but also we’ll mark this time as an important turning point, where the seed for that legal technology revolution was planted.

–Brian

Free Law Project Calls for License-Free Government Data

Today a group of non-proft public interest organizations have released updated Best-Practices Language for Making Government Data “License-Free.” Free Law Project is glad to sign on to their statement and to support the effort to assist government agencies in making clear that their data is free of copyright or contractual restrictions and can be re-used freely.

The details can be found at http://theunitedstates.io/licensing/ See also Josh Tauberer’s blog post announcing this release.

Free Law Project Joins Free Access to Law Movement

Free Law Project is proud to announce that it has been officially accepted as a member of the Free Access to Law Movement. FALM is a consortium of non-profit institutions dedicated to providing free and open access to the world’s law. Its members subscribe to the Declaration on Free Access to Law.

The Declaration explains in part that,

  • Public legal information from all countries and international institutions is part of the common heritage of humanity. Maximising access to this information promotes justice and the rule of law;
  • Public legal information is digital common property and should be
    accessible to all on a non-profit basis and free of charge;
  • Organisations such as legal information institutes have the right to publish public legal information and the government bodies that create or control that information should provide access to it so that it can be published by other parties.

We have been operating consistently with the principles laid out in the Declaration for some time. Finding ourselves in complete agreement with the Declaration on Free Access to Law, we are excited now to make it official and to formally join with our colleagues around the globe engaged in these endeavors.

FALM members come from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, and Europe. Free Law Project looks forward to sharing ideas and knowledge with this diverse group so that we can all better meet the challenges facing free access to public legal information throughout the world.

Our New Authorities Table Allows Traveling to the Past

For a long time we’ve had a feature that allowed you to look at the items that cite an opinion, letting you to look into the future and see what cases found it important down the line. As of today, we’re announcing the complimentary feature that allows easy travel into the past. Starting immediately, when you look at almost any case in our collection you’ll see an Authorities section in its sidebar.

For example, Roe v. Wade looks like this:

authorities-sidebar-example

This section shows the top five opinions that were cited by the one you are looking at. If you wish to see all of the opinions it cited there is a link at the bottom that takes you to the new Table of Authorities page, which shows everything:

authorities table

Now, when you’re looking at an opinion, you can easily travel through time to either opinions that came later or ones that came before. Doc Brown would be proud.

Posted by: Michael Lissner