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Firefox Plugin Liberates Paywalled Court Records 145

Posted by kdawson
from the free-as-in-beer dept.
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!

    Example:

    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.

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

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by thejynxed (831517)

        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.

        And that right there, is a very sad fact that should never have been allowed to exist.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Diacritic (791165)
          So we should stop allowing people to file documents with the courts? Or should we stop allowing documents to be available for public use? Which "fact" are you referring to?
          • by shentino (1139071)

            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.

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by MarkvW (1037596)

              "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 shentino (1139071)

                True, which is why that elimination needs to be paired with a loser pays system.

                I dunno but I'm not much of a fan of finality if it means that miscarriages of justice get set in stone.

                The appeals process is a nice compromise except for the fact that even THEY are overburdened enough and often give the bird to any cases they don't care about.

              • by shentino (1139071)

                To be clear, I only think that cases should be revisited when the one who wants to do so bears the cost and burden of proof.

                Possible refund if he proves he was right.

                And until such time as he proves his case, the other side doesn't even get bothered.

                • by devilspgd (652955) *

                  How does the other side not even get bothered without also granting them a chance to defend themselves?

  • by guruevi (827432) <evi@@@smokingcube...be> on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:04AM (#29064387) Homepage

    I don't understand why there is a paywall in the first place. I thought all government records should be available for free through a FOIA request.

    • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn@nOspAM.gmail.com> on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:12AM (#29064469) Journal

      I don't understand why there is a paywall in the first place. I thought all government records should be available for free through a FOIA request.

      They probably are, but FOIA is a long and timely process. Surely for court documents that do not require any review before release, there could be an easier way? 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.

      The fee is eight cents per page you wish to view. While I don't agree with this now, I could maybe see how in 1988 this nominal fee would be needed for the transfer of this data. Today, bandwidth is cheap for documents. Bring on the Firefox extension and public.resource.org hosting! I think they should allow a bidding contract with "free" being the only option ... I'm guessing Google and Scribd and many others could make enough off the ads to host everything without blinking an eye. Hell, Google's doing it for patents, why not federal court documents?

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by BadAnalogyGuy (945258)

        It's not just for bandwidth, but for the total maintenance of the system.

        If you read deeper, there is a cap on fees per case of $2.40, so (using their example) if a case has 50 pages of documents, you would only need to pay $2.40 instead of the full $4.00.

        I'm sure they would love someone to take this responsibility off their hands. Here's their FAQ for usage:

        What are the acceptable uses of the data obtained from the PACER system?
        The PACER system provides electronic access to case information from federal co

      • by AndrewNeo (979708) on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:45AM (#29064815) Homepage

        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.

        • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn@nOspAM.gmail.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 timeOday (582209)
          Court records are not something that should be more available to those with money. The goal here is justice that is blind to wealth. I know that's kind of preposterous, but we should be taking steps towards that goal wherever we can. Putting these records online would be a minuscule public burden; most of what they do collect probably goes to transaction overhead anyways. Like when you pay $3 to get into a state park and most of it goes to the person standing there collecting the $3.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by aminorex (141494)

          Wars, yeah, okay, but not laws.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ShieldW0lf (601553)
        I'm guessing Google and Scribd and many others could make enough off the ads to host everything without blinking an eye.

        Why does everyone acknowledge that people are willing to pay a lot of money for propaganda, yet not make the connection that this propaganda is so effective at leading people astray that they'll pay a lot of money for it and recognize that inducing people to mindless behavior has a social cost of it's own? When you run an effective ad campaign and manipulate people behavior, it's basica
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Pfhool (744)

        I don't understand why there is a paywall in the first place. I thought all government records should be available for free through a FOIA request.

        They probably are, but FOIA is a long and timely process.

        FOIA only applies to the executive branch.

      • by mounthood (993037)

        Today, bandwidth is cheap for documents. Bring on the Firefox extension and public.resource.org hosting! I think they should allow a bidding contract with "free" being the only option ... I'm guessing Google and Scribd and many others could make enough off the ads to host everything without blinking an eye. Hell, Google's doing it for patents, why not federal court documents?

        Since bandwidth is cheap, why not just post a torrent of the archive? If they're required to collect fee's to cover the costs, they'll only need a few hundred dollars (?) and meet both the letter and spirit of the law. Then all the aggregaters like Google or Scribd or anyone else could do it without prior negotiation and contracts, etc...

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Kidro (1283296)
      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."
    • FOIA requests can charge for the resources needed to comply with them.

    • by ffflala (793437)

      FOIA is the Freedom of Information Act, not the Free-as-in-free-beer of Information Act.

      Processing court documents requires clerks and hardware, and that costs money. It will either be use fees or taxes; take your pick.

  • I can sort of understand when the government charges for something that takes human effort. For example, patent and copyright searches through records which have not been digitized. They are simply covering extra labor costs which can be very time consuming- but when it's all online anyway, how dare they charge us for it?
  • by Shakrai (717556) on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:06AM (#29064407) Journal

    I had to get a PACER account when I filed bankruptcy, so that I could monitor my case and download the documents related to it. It's ridiculous how it works -- they charge you $0.03 for every page that you download. It's like going to the local library and paying to use the copy machine, except in this case it's completely electronic and costs them no consumables. Why are they allowed to charge so much for access to the public record? It seems like a reasonable amount to ask if you went to the local court house and started printing hard copies but $0.03/page for a PDF document? Really?

    Kudos to the people who came up with this idea. Now if we only had a free way to search case law. You can access the current Federal and State statues from the relevant Government websites but you have no easy way to do the same for case law, which is at least as important under our legal system. Most of the services to do this are paid ones (Lexis Nexis), I've yet to come across a decent free one.

    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Wait, court maintain the records on servers, pays people to take care of them and maintain them, have people to imagine or record the files at windows or over the internet...then why should not court charge for documents? You think people who work at the court should not get paid? Just because that information is free to view, does not mean you should not pay for it to obtain.

      You buy books and CDs that have long expired trademarks for money because someone put them together. You pay to receive your

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by mariushm (1022195)

        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 sh

        • 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.

          It appears they've already done this - the fee is capped at $2.40.

      • by stupid_is (716292)

        TINSTAFRL (There is no such thing as free lunch.)

        Way to mangle TANSTAAFL [wikipedia.org] :-)

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by rickyars (619739)

      I agree that stuff like this should be free since it is, after all, subsidized by our tax dollars.

      But you're mistaken if you think it costs them nothing to make available to you these electronic documents. They have to (1) buy and maintain servers and storage, (2) pay the people to install and maintain that hardware, and (3) pay for electricity and cooling.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        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

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Shakrai (717556)

        But you're mistaken if you think it costs them nothing to make available to you these electronic documents

        What makes you assume that I think it costs them nothing? It obviously costs them something. I just question whether or not it costs so much that they need to charge $0.03/page for a PDF document.

        They have to (1) buy and maintain servers and storage, (2) pay the people to install and maintain that hardware, and (3) pay for electricity and cooling.

        They'd have to do all that anyway. The courts would still be keeping these documents even if PACER wasn't around to make the easily available to the public. So the question is how much extra does having the PACER functionality cost?

        • by sowth (748135) *

          What it costs is a good question. My low rent hosting charges a US penny per 10 Megabytes. How big are the PDFs? Are they incorporating the costs for personnel to submit the papers to their site? Are you sure it is 3 cents? According to this [uscourts.gov], it is 8 cents per page (but free if you don't use more than $10/year worth, and the cost is capped to $2.40/document.) That seems a bit more steep to me, especialy considering they classify a search which returns no results as a "page."

    • How much it costs to scan the documents and host it in the servers? They should probably charge 3 cents a page to the first buyer and then reduce it to one cent for the second, to 0.1 cent for the third buyer and then zero for all subsequent buyers.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by blueg3 (192743)

        It actually makes more sense to always charge the same amount for a page, and choose a fee such that you manage to cover your costs.

        The real problem is that to most incensed Libertarians assume the marginal cost should be the total cost. Apparently overhead does not exist.

    • by nomadic (141991)
      Kudos to the people who came up with this idea. Now if we only had a free way to search case law. You can access the current Federal and State statues from the relevant Government websites but you have no easy way to do the same for case law, which is at least as important under our legal system. Most of the services to do this are paid ones (Lexis Nexis), I've yet to come across a decent free one.

      Try Google.
    • by cfulmer (3166)

      3 cents is a lot? They have to pay for the servers, the electricity and the people who run these systems. Sure, the marginal cost for accessing documents is negligible, but there is a significant fixed cost that has to be made up for somewhere. And, parts of it--largely the opinions--are free.

      As far as free ways to search case law, check out findlaw.com, lexisone.com, the websites for the courts themselves, archive.org, etc... Or, you can do what lawyers have done for centuries -- find a law library and

    • by wrecked (681366)

      Kudos to the people who came up with this idea. Now if we only had a free way to search case law.

      For Canadians, you can use CanLii [canlii.org] (Canadian Legal Information Institute) to research case law for free. The courts and tribunals in most provinces post their decisions online, as well. In British Columbia, the courts have been uploading their decisions to their website [gov.bc.ca] since 1996.

    • by ffflala (793437)

      The fee structure is outdated now, but it made sense at the time PACER was first implemented as a cost-offsetting measure. These records are public, but the required labor and overhead must be accounted for. It's either use a per-use fee, or a dip into tax revenue.

      The initial fee in $1 per minute in 1990. By 1996 it was down to 75Â per minute; in 1997 it moved to 7Â per page. http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov/documents/epachron.pdf [uscourts.gov] Now PACER's revenue generates a lot more than its administrative costs

      • As someone who worked with court records esp. bankruptcy records in the late 90's - early 00's be thankful for the PACER of today. I still have nightmares about connecting to the OK City bankruptcy court through a Citrix client to check proof of claims filings. Or using PCAnywhere to connect to Trustee data(shudder).

      • by Paul Carver (4555)

        75 Angstroms per minute seems extremely slow and 7 Angstroms per page sounds like they're using very small pieces of paper. Perhaps you should have used the preview button before submitting your post.

        • by ffflala (793437)

          Perhaps you should have used the preview button before submitting your post.

          I previewed the post several times before posting and did several edits. Yet I still managed to overlook the Â; I'm terribly sorry about that typo.

          Now if you'd like to discuss PACER and Recap, let's do that.

    • by shentino (1139071)

      Electricity is something I'd consider consumable...

  • by vrmlguy (120854) <{samwyse} {at} {gmail.com}> on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:06AM (#29064413) Homepage Journal

    Because subverting the will of the judiciary always turns out well.

    • 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 sukotto (122876)

        Bureaucracies are all react pretty much the same when faced with something that threatens their funding. They do what they can to kill the threat.

        The fact that this is supposed to be public information is insignificant next to desire to protect funding.

  • Bypassing one of the few Federal programs designed to pay for itself [uscourts.gov] via fees from people who can afford to pay them.
    • I'm a US citizen and pay thousands of dollars a year in Federal taxes. Why should I pay *more* to access public court documents from the Federal courts? If the issue is the costs of hosting the documents on servers, this project, by its mere existence, shows that there are people who will gladly shoulder the cost of hosting the documents, so others can access them for free. If the issue is the cost of having people redact documents where necessary, and scan them in (in the situations where the documents are

      • by wampus (1932) on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:29AM (#29064633)

        So are user fees automatically bad everywhere? Toll roads, fuel taxes, school registration, and so on all fit the same criteria. You are paying tax to support *some* of it, but it seems fair to make the people who are actually using a service pay more.

        • User fees and general tax money is automatically bad. Pick one or the other. (Preferably user fees.)
          • by tepples (727027)

            User fees and general tax money is automatically bad. Pick one or the other. (Preferably user fees.)

            Cable television subscriptions and commercial interruption is automatically bad. Pick one or the other. (Preferably subscriptions.)

            • Actually, you have that the wrong way around—cable subscriptions are analogous to general tax money (since everybody who subscribes is subsidizing the 80% of the channels that they don't watch), while the commercials are funding the specific programs you watch.

              And I would prefer a structure that would let me reward shows that I watch instead of propping up Food Network and Lifetime, personally. But until then, there's always streaming websites and DVD. :)
              • by wampus (1932)

                Don't you blaspheme the Food Network! But yeah, Lifetime and all 6 of the ESPNs can go away. ESPN is directly responsible for about $8 of my cable bill, IIRC.

              • by tepples (727027)

                Actually, you have that the wrong way around--cable subscriptions are analogous to general tax money (since everybody who subscribes is subsidizing the 80% of the channels that they don't watch), while the commercials are funding the specific programs you watch.

                I was thinking of NBC (no subscription, lots of ads) vs. Showtime (high subscription, no ads). Users of Showtime pay the fee; all people who buy products advertised on NBC pay for NBC.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by the phantom (107624)
            You are so right. We should only pay user fees. Then we won't have to pay for the things we don't use. I know that, for me, personally, this would save a hell of a lot of money, seeing as I don't use the military, welfare, medicaid, medicare, or social security!
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          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]

        • ... especially tolls, which are often wildly inefficient. When I lived in the SF Bay area, I would often wait a good half hour to pay a $4.00 toll. With two people in the car whose time is worth $40/hr each, the cost in time of paying the toll is 10 X the actual toll.

          Raise the gas tax a little to cover all tolls and I would be much happier!

          • Tolls aren't solely about revenue generation, they can be about congestion control too. It actually sounds like the toll you pay is too cheap. It sounds like it needs to be $20.00, then you probably won't have to wait and you'll save 50% of your hourly wage.

        • Arguably, there are category distinctions to be made within user fees.

          For instance, you could say that certain things, like law enforcement and military defense, are simply inherent to the role of the state and are its necessary functions. Every member of the state is automatically a "user", so these are supported by taxation and not user fees(indeed, given the importance of impartiality in law, it might be desirable to positively forbid user fees in these areas).

          Other things, like public education and
        • Public services should be allowed to charge to cover the cost of providing the service. I don't mind paying to get into my favorite hiking parks for example.

          But what RECAP is doing is an attempt to replace the for-pay service with a for-free service. RECAP obviously does not operate for "free", but if it operates much more cheaply than PACER--entirely possible--I see nothing wrong with them eliminating the fees! One hopes that the government will notice, and eliminate the costly program in favor of the c

        • Forbidding competition among providers of services is bad everywhere. User fees for road tolls and taxes as well as public schools are bad if private entities are not allowed to respectively provide access to their own privately owned roads and private schools. Moreover, these court records can be distributed by private individuals without incurring any additional costs to the federal government.
    • Re:Nice job... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:21AM (#29064559) Journal
      Is making a fairly inexpensive program self supporting really more important than ensure citizen's access to the law? Really?

      If so, I propose another initiative: "1-900-THE-COPS" is a new "991 Premium" service offering enhanced access to law enforcement for a modest fee...

      Joking aside, there are plenty of areas where running government as lean as possible makes sense; but nickle-and-diming justice seems like a terrible plan.
    • by amplt1337 (707922)

      I'd much rather federal programs paid for themselves through taxes, rather than restricting access to legal proceedings to those with money.

      Any price-based barrier to entry is too great for the legal system.

    • and archive.org is designed to be a nonprofit

    • 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?
  • If someone could RECAP the court transcript of the recent i4i v. Microsoft case, that would be very useful.

    http://en.swpat.org/wiki/I4i_v._Microsoft [swpat.org]

    http://en.swpat.org/wiki/Talk:I4i_v._Microsoft [swpat.org]

    Thanks.

    • by bogaboga (793279)

      Video of the proceedings would be like icing on the cake! Why don't we have publicly available video content of proceedings? Any hopes for this?

      • You can't grep videos.

      • by kuroth (11147)

        There is no video of Federal court proceedings, it's prohibited.

        • There is no video of Federal court proceedings, it's prohibited.

          In light of this, please allow me to rephrase bogaboga's comment:

          Video of the proceedings would be like icing on the cake! Why has the law prohibiting video recording of Federal court proceedings not been repealed? Any hopes for this?

  • well (Score:5, Informative)

    by nomadic (141991) <nomadicworldNO@SPAMgmail.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.
  • Patience (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Taylor123456789 (1354177) <jheardNO@SPAMmsn.com> on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:51AM (#29064867)

    As a lawyer who has used Pacer for many years, my first reaction was the same. Why am I paying for something with no marginal cost that should be free in the first place? However, look at the alternative: driving down to the courthouse and making physical photocopies at even greater expense.

    I then learned that they are using the money to build their IT infrastructure to allow even better access. Of course, they will probably never remove the fees, but $.03 is really quite cheap compared to say, Lexis or Westlaw which charge about $100 per day to access their data without a subscription.

    Right now, it is optional for lawyers (some courts even charge you to do it) to file electronic versions of your documents. Eventually, all lawyers will file electronic versions of their documents, and access will be better.

    I support public.resource.org which is attempting to make all government laws free online.

    The wheels of justice move slowly but surely.

    • Wow, no offense intended but it is evident that you are a lawyer. I don't mean that in a bad way but the nature of what you do requires you to think in terms of reasonable fees. As they say, this might be what your used to but it is amazing what you can get used to.

      The fact we are used to the justice system moving slowly does not mean we should be tolerant of senseless foot dragging. If these guys can improve the system, then God bless them for putting forth the effort.

      I would say that if the fees are
  • by localman57 (1340533) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:10AM (#29065077)
    If the system relies on my uploading documents that I downloaded from the court, how does it authenticate the validity of those documents? Suppose I'm a patent troll lawyer. What's to keep me (aside from non-technical disciplinary stuff) from downloading documents that have unfavorable rulings to patet troll companies, then modifying them to make it look like the precident is different, and uploading them to RECAP? It seems like this could be a good way to derail the competition.
    • by Rydia (556444) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:39AM (#29065477)

      It's not really a concern or a problem. If you're relying upon a holding or an order from a court, your opponent is going to go and get their own copy of that order (sure, maybe they go to RECAP). They will notice that what you said doesn't match up with the official record and tell the judge. Heck, when you file a brief relying on the order, you're going to get stopped by the judge anyway because (at least in my experience), the judge is going to ignore everything except your overall argument regarding that opinion/order, and then just go and read the opinion/order himself (off PACER, since it doesn't cost the judge anything). At best, you didn't include any of the lying bits. At worst (say the local rules required you to attach the case to your filing), you're essentially lying to the court. Judges aren't big fans of this. Lawyers and judges are (generally) not idiots. The possibility of this scheme actually working is so incredibly remote that you'd have to be nuts to try it.

      • by localman57 (1340533) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:49AM (#29065627)
        But you're assuming that I'm downloading the document to use specifically as-is, in the judicial system. What if I'm interested in reading, for instance, the i4i v. Microsoft case above for my own entertainment and education? What's to keep one party or the other from uploading a version of the document with stuff they don't like modified? It might not work in court, but it could confuse the public, or cause you to abandon one potentially valid avenue of research you might otherwise have pursued, had the document not been falsified. It's easy to see how this could appeal to people. Just look how many people put up false stuff on Wikipedia. Except in this case, the only way for me to refute what is in RECAP is to pay money to buy my own copy of the document from PACER.

        Are you absolutely sure the RIAA or similar wouldn't potentially try to do this if a bad case came down against them? Once a falsehood starts circulating, it's very hard to kill.
        • Are you absolutely sure the RIAA or similar wouldn't potentially try to do this if a bad case came down against them? Once a falsehood starts circulating, it's very hard to kill.

          Is that really such a bad thing?

          Let me put it this way: LET THEM FALSIFY THE DOCUMENTS! When (WHEN) it gets out that some particular party--let's assume the RIAA--has falsified documents in the hopes that it'd sway public opinion, I can't imagine that future proceedings would be all that favorable. Judges may be impartial, but they'

    • by John Hasler (414242) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:45AM (#29065567) Homepage

      > What's to keep me (aside from non-technical disciplinary stuff) from
      > downloading documents that have unfavorable rulings to patet troll companies,
      > then modifying them to make it look like the precident is different, and
      > uploading them to RECAP?

      a) Lawyers will only use unofficial sources like RECAP for research. Material that they intend to use in court will be downloaded from PACER and thus you will be caught.

      b) Judges have no reason not to use PACER for everything since they don't pay the fees and do need to be sure they are looking at official versions. Thus you will be caught again.

      However, this will encourage lawyers on small budgets to do much more wide-ranging research, will allow penurious litigants to have access to court records, and allow the general public to more easily follow cases.

      • by localman57 (1340533) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:53AM (#29065663)

        Lawyers will only use unofficial sources like RECAP for research.

        Exactly! And that's why it's worth falsifying. If I can convince you, through your own research, that what you're trying to do against me has been proven not to work, then you'll give up. When in fact, perhaps your research would have shown that what you were trying to do in fact worked very well!

        • And if I don't give up, and we go to trial? And the judge finds out what you did? Are you really willing to risk it? Even if it doesn't come out for years?

        • Maybe PACER should provide hashs to ensure that files haven't been tampered with, its the standard method. This would stop RECAP from being tampered with as well as the official PACER download.
  • What about a donation system whereby one can pay to have the people running this download some documents? Three bucks would be three hundred documents. There could be options on which documents they'd like downloaded. What about a Make a Request section? They could even handle it like Miro handle's donations and put your name up when people see the document. "This document has been liberated by XXX." Maybe these aren't good ideas for various reasons and I just don't know enough to know why. Just throwing
    • by rickb928 (945187)

      Three bucks would be 300 PAGES.

      That might be 300 documents, or more likely as few as 1/3 of a document. How many single-page documents are commonly filed?

      Of course, at ten bucks, you're getting warmer...

      Perhaps this is the beginning of truly 'public' repositories. Or a way for not-for-profit journalism to survive, since they would benefit greatly from free or nearly-free documents. And shouldn't we also encourage public repositories of FOIA documents of all types? Oh, wait, don't many FOIA requesters a

  • It would be wonderful if all county, state and city records could also be easily accessed on non governmental sites. One effect would be that the paranoid could stop blaming the government for compiling records on them. Now they could blame entirely free and separate entities for compiling files. I'll also bet that such easily available information would reveal quite a few criminals activities.

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