Recycling Electronic Court Records

by Mike on 2/16/2008

in First We Kill All the Lawyers, The Intarweb

Anyone who works with the Federal courts will be familiar with PACER, the federal judiciary’s electronic public records system. The great thing about PACER is that any current (I’m not sure how many years are encompassed) court case is in the system, allowing the public to access any document filed in any federal court case. The not-so-great side of PACER is the eight cents per page fee charged for each record. Eight cents per page is pretty reasonable, compared to most comparable systems, but it can really add up when you consider the number of pages in a typical court document (my local court rules allow 25 pages for a brief, for example) and the number of documents in a given case. And we know the money’s adding up – apparently, the judiciary has noted a “significant accumulation of unobligated balances” (hows that for a euphemism for “obscene profits”?)

Once you pay the fee, though – or if you’re a lawyer on the case and get “one free look” – you can do anything you want with the document, because it’s considered public domain. That includes uploading it to, through their PACER recycling tool, so that anyone will be able to download the documents for free.

I’ve spent a few minutes looking through the site, and have even uploaded a few documents. Here’s what I’ve noticed right away:

  1. They’re just getting started. Only a small percentage of recent cases are represented, with most cases having only one document available.
  2. Unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, you’re not likely to find it. There’s no search function whatsoever, and Google doesn’t seem to get deep enough to index the documents themselves. But everything is organized by court and by case number, so if you have those two bits of information, you’ll know in seconds whether your documents are available.

I think this is a great idea, if a bit underdeveloped at this stage, and I wonder if it wouldn’t be possible for someone to produce a more complete archive using an ad-based revenue model instead of a nonprofit model. But in the meantime, if I need something from PACER, I’m pretty much resigned to paying for it.

Via Stay Violation.

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