In Chief Justice Roberts’ End of Year Report there were some astounding figures about the size and scope of PACER, the Federal system for court filings. Among his figures was the fact that there are more than “one billion retrievable documents” in PACER:
— Mike Lissner (@mlissner) January 15, 2015
We believe that this means that PACER is the largest collection of public domain documents locked behind a pay wall. Having access to this information is vital to a functioning judiciary and we are working to break it open.
Public.Resource.org recently published an excellent memo outlining a campaign to retrieve from PACER more of its contents and to create pressure for it to be opened completely. The memo, which is worth a read in itself, defines a strategy of “litigation, supplication, and agitation.”
Today we’re announcing a plan that should help with the third part of the strategy: Agitation.
Here’s how it will work:
- Today, you sign up for our email list by filling out the form here.
- PACER provides a fee waiver for the first $15 that you spend each quarter. Near the end of each quarter, we will send you an email reminding you to download $15-worth of content from PACER, if you haven’t done so already.
- You install the RECAP extension and then use Think Computer Foundation’s Operation Asymptote to identify documents that are not already part of our free public archive.
- You download suggested items until you get close to the $15 fee waiver, then you STOP.
Our hope is that the administrators of PACER will notice an unusual usage of the quarterly fee waiver and that they will begin to feel pressure to open up the system. At the same time, since we are using the RECAP extension, we will be contributing all of this content to the public domain.
The more people we can get on board this project, the greater our impact will be.
In preparation for this plan of agitation there are four pieces of homework:
- Create a PACER account if you do not have one yet.
- Install the RECAP extension for Chrome and/or Firefox.
- Sign up for the email list so we can remind you when the time is right.
- Tell a friend!
Beyond a demonstration that many people care about these documents being free, we hope these efforts will actually make a substantial number of new documents freely available to the public.
Sign up today and let’s start agitating.
We rolled out a new feature today on CourtListener that allows you to stay up to date with court opinions and oral arguments as fast as we know about them. We’re calling it Real Time Alerts, and donors can start using this now by selecting “Real Time” in the rate drop down when creating alerts:
Once you’ve set up an alert with this rate, we’ll begin checking the hundreds of items we download each day and we will send an email as soon as a new item triggers your alert. Just like our other emails, once you get the alert, you can click directly on the results to read opinions or listen to oral arguments.
For journalists and other users with speed-critical work, it’s as simple as that to keep up with hundreds of courts. Let us know what you think!
Earlier this week somebody on the Internet pinged us with some code and asked that we integrate the data from the Supreme Court Database (SCDB). Well, we’re happy to share that less than a week later we’ve taken the code they provided and used it to upgrade CourtListener’s database.
The Supreme Court Database includes data for about 8,500 Supreme Court opinions from 1946 to 2013 and this first pass merges that data with CourtListener so that:
- Our copy of these opinions are enhanced with better parallel citations. You can now look these items up by U.S. Reporter (U.S.), The Supreme Court Reporter (S.Ct.), Lawyers’ Edition (L.Ed.) or even LEXIS citation (U.S. LEXIS). This should make our citation graph much more robust and should help people like Colin Starger at University of Baltimore that are doing great analyses with this data. Many of these items were screen scraped directly from the Supreme Court website meaning that for these items, this is the first time they have had proper citations. Here’s an example of the many parallel citations items now have:
- All Supreme Court Opinions from 1946 to 2013 have a new field that can be used by researchers to join them with the SCDB. This will allow the opinions from CourtListener to be merged with the items in SCDB to get any fields that we did not yet import (SCDB has dozens of fields!)
So, this first pass at a merge of SCDB and CourtListener accomplishes the immediate goals of adding more citations and of making it possible to join the two databases, but we have not yet imported all of the many fields that are included in the SCDB. We’re waiting to hear from the community before moving forward with any of the other fields so that we can learn which are valuable to our users. Depending on which fields people ask for, it should be easy for us to add them as needed. Be in touch and we’ll be happy to import further data.
Like many of our recent features, this enhancement was possible because somebody wanted our data enhanced, gave us a great prototype implementation, and asked for us to do the last little bit to deploy it on CourtListener. We’re happy to do so today and to release the best CourtListener data yet.
Starting today, as you use CourtListener you’ll see Quick Tips on the bottom of search results. They show up below search pagination and look something like this:
The idea behind this feature is to give people quick bits of information about Free Law Project, CourtListener, RECAP and any other projects that we create in the future. As of now we’ve seeded the tips with about 20 that we thought would be useful, but because all of our work is in the open, we’re welcoming our users to add tips that they think would be useful.
To add a tip you’ll need a Github account and some basic HTML skills. If you have these two things, you can wander over to the list of tips and submit some of your own. If they’re good, we’ll add them to the site!
Yesterday the impressive DC Legal Hackers group held their first annual Le Hackie Awards and Holiday Party. Although we weren’t able to attend the event (it was in D.C.), we’re proud and gratified to share that Free Law Project played a part in two of the top ten legal hacks of the year. The first was for our new Oral Arguments feature that we’ve been blogging so much about lately, and the second was for Frank Bennett’s Free Law Ferret, which he built using code originally developed for CourtListener.
Update: Turns out the Free Law Ferret was from 2013 and was not awarded a Le Hackie Award. Our mistake was to trust a slide from the presentation, which contained a typo.
— Matt McKibbin (@LibertyPanacea) December 4, 2014
Brian and I couldn’t be happier to see the legal hacking community grow and we’re humbled to be a part of it. So much fantastic work is getting done each year, and the legal arena is growing and maturing at a feverish pace. We hope that the DC Legal Hackers will keep up their great work and that next year the board will be plastered with even better hacks.
The past week has been a busy one for us and we’re excited to announce that thanks to a generous data donation we’ve added an additional 7,000 oral arguments to CourtListener. These files are available now and can already be searched, saved, and made into podcasts.
Although 7,000 more oral arguments may not sound like much, I must point out that these files are larger than your average MP3 and this has taken a week for our powerful server to download and prepare. Our collection now has more than 200 continuous days of listening – more than six months of audio.
From here on, we’ll continue getting the latest oral arguments from the Federal Appeals courts that offer them but we are eager for more donations so we can build up our archive. Oyez.org is doing an incredible job with the Supreme Court (and we hope to integrate these eventually), but if you know somebody in the federal appellate courts or if you have a collection of oral arguments you’d like to share, please get in touch! We’re eager to hear from you and to build the largest collection of oral arguments that we can.
It’s really hard to overstate the incredible nature of the open source community, but if you head over to CourtListener, you’ll find that between yesterday and today the entire website has been revamped. This was done over the past month by a volunteer developer who took time off work to give every single page in the entire site a fresh lick of paint.
On top of just plain looking better, the new site has a raft of improvements that we’re excited about:
- The entire site from top to bottom can now be used from your phone, tablet or desktop. Complicated pages will do the right thing to adapt to smaller or bigger screens. (Yes, we now use bootstrap.)
- The accessibility of the site has been vastly improved for people with motility or vision difficulties. Over the next few days we’ll continue rolling out improvements in this area that will trickle down even to keyboard-heavy users.
- Sharing pages on Facebook or Twitter and saving the site to your desktop on iOS, Android or Windows now works properly, with good titles, descriptions and meta data.
This post is supposed to be about the new version of the site, but I can’t help but gush about the open source community and the smart people that it attracts. For our part, we did a little bit of deployment work and a few design sessions, but this developer came in, fixed every page of the site and then gave us a new and beautiful version. That’s incredible and it’s something that we could never do outside of the open source community. It was also particularly nice that, thanks to geographic proximity, we got to have two in-person sessions during the process.
This update makes CourtListener ready for the next several years and modernizes the way it looks so that it feels right regardless of if you visit on your phone, computer, Playstation, or whatever. With thousands of people visiting each day, we couldn’t be more excited to provide this update.
Let us know what you think and if you’re interested in helping build the next feature like this one, get in touch! There’s always more work to do. We’d love to hear from you.
We’re happy to share three pieces of news about oral arguments at CourtListener.
First, the sixth circuit has begun putting oral argument audio on their website and we have begun dishing it up through CourtListener. We briefly spoke to the technology team at the court and their reaction to our questions about their system was, “Oh, is that on our website already?” So this is a very new development, even for them.
Right now their site has oral argument audio back to August 7th and we are in the process of grabbing this audio and putting it in our archive. Unfortunately, the case in the news right now that’s blocking gay marriage in the circuit was argued one day prior to the oldest files they’ve posted, and so we don’t have audio for that case, and possibly never will. This is one big reason we’ve wanted to get into oral arguments on CourtListener and why we’ve been supported with a grant from Columbia Library to do this work: This content is simply going dark as new content is published.
While we’re happy to now be collecting data from the 6th Circuit, it’s still disappointing that we don’t have it from the Second, Tenth, or Eleventh Circuit, as they do not (yet) publish their oral argument audio. We simply have to hope that the content is being stored somewhere and that we’ll get it eventually. (If you’re reading this and have connections in those courts, we’d love to hear from you.)
A second piece of news is that we just added our 1,000th oral argument since beginning eight days ago! This is already more than 40GB of data — a harbinger of complex systems problems to come, but we’re excited to be collecting so much so quickly and we hope you’ll create some podcasts or alerts for what we have.
Our final piece of news today is that our oral argument podcasts are now available on Stitcher. If you have a smartphone and enjoy podcasts, simply search for CourtListener in the Stitcher app, and our podcasts will come right up.
We’re very excited to announce that CourtListener is currently in the process of rolling out support for Oral Argument audio. This is a feature that we’ve wanted for at least four years — our name is CourtListener, after all — and one that will bring a raft of new features to the project. We already have about 500 oral arguments on the site, and we’ve got many more we’ll be adding over the coming weeks.
For now we are getting oral argument audio in real time from ten federal appellate courts. As we get this audio, we are using it to power a number of features:
- Oral Argument files become immediately available in our search results.
- A podcast is automatically available for every jurisdiction we support and for any query that you can dream up. Want a custom podcast containing all of the 9th circuit arguments for a particular litigant? You got it.
- You can now get alerts for oral arguments so you can be sure that you keep up with the latest coming out of the courts.
- For developers, there are a number of new endpoints in both our REST API and our bulk data API for audio files.
- Using the Free Law Seal Rookery, we are enhancing the audio we find on court websites by adding album art and better meta data.
For now, search results and alerts are limited to the data that is provided by court websites, so you cannot (yet) get alerted any time somebody says a certain word in court. Audio is a new area for us though and we’d absolutely love to automatically create transcripts for the courts, enabling such a feature. This would be an incredibly powerful feature, so if you are an expert on audio transcription, we’d love to hear from you and to work together on this.
Beyond all of the great features we’re rolling out today, oral argument data also marks an important turning point for the project because it lays the ground work for adding more types of data to CourtListener. It’s been a large undertaking adding a second type of data to the project, but adding a third will be much easier. Next in our hopper will likely be the content from RECAP so that you can create alerts, have powerful APIs, and do all the other things you expect from CourtListener, except this time, for documents from PACER.
We’re very excited about being able to provide oral argument data today and RECAP data tomorrow. We can’t wait to see what kinds of legal research and innovation these new features bring.
Last Friday, it was reported by the Washington Post and Ars Technica that Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, had sent a letter to Judge Bates, the head of the Administrative Office of the Courts, urging the AOC to put back online the recently-removed PACER documents from five courts. I had not seen the full letter posted anywhere yet, so present it here:
Free Law Project agrees with Senator Leahy that taking these documents offline represents “a dramatic step backwards” and that the Courts’ currently proposed work-around represents “a troubling increase in costs…” We hope the AOC will be open to restoring online access to these documents and stand ready to help make these documents freely available online for the public were that agreeable to the AOC.