The post describes the online publication of U.S. federal court decisions on the U.S. Government Printing Office’s FDsys platform, and recommends ways to improve FDsys‘s publishing practices.
A procedure for accessing full text judicial decisions free of charge on PACER — the U.S. federal courts’ database of court decisions and litigation materials — has been posted by Mark Rosch. The procedure has been recently discussed by Nick Moline of Justia.
Oddly, this procedure does not seem to be mentioned in the FAQ on the PACER Website.
This functionality appears to have been introduced in 2005, according to a 2005 announcement from the PACER Service Center. (HT @sglassmeyer.) However, this information does not appear to be readily accessible on the PACER Website. In fact, to date, the PACER FAQ does not appear to make any mention of the availability of PACER cases free of charge.
Posting this procedure in the PACER FAQ — where, one would think, most PACER users are likely to look for information about the costs of using PACER — would seem to be in the public interest, because such posting is very likely to reduce PACER users’ costs of retrieving judicial decisions from PACER, and to encourage more citizens to use PACER as a source of judicial decisions.
On a related note, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts announced yesterday that twelve U.S. federal courts will participate in a pilot project to enhance public access to the judicial decisions on PACER that are available free of charge. The decisions are to be made available through the Government Printing Office (GPO)’s FDsys system. This pilot project is a joint effort between the Judicial Conference of the United States and GPO.
For more on PACER, please see Stephen Schultze’s VoxPopuLII post, PACER, RECAP, and the Movement to Free American Case Law.
Mr. Wash’s post identifies key issues respecting the authentication of digital government information — including U.S. federal legal information — and discusses GPO’s approach to authentication.
For other recent discussion of authentication of digital legal information, please see Sean McGrath’s post, Pssst…there is no such thing as an authentic/original/official/master electronic legal text, and Jason Eiseman’s VoxPopuLII post, Time to Turn the Page on Print Legal Information.
Full text of U.S. Supreme Court decisions issued from 1937-1975 — derived from the U.S. Air Force’s FLITE database — is available in bulk from the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO)’s FDsys, as of 13 April 2010.
UPDATE: According to GPO, this FLITE file is a text-only file, of approximately 50MB, containing U.S. Supreme Court decisions from 1937 through 1975. The data is not marked up in XML, and there is no user guide accompanying the data. GPO says it does not currently have plans to mark up this data in XML or to chunk the data into smaller components. GPO says it would be interested in partnering with another organization respecting marking up this data in XML and dividing the data into smaller components. Interested organizations should contact GPO’s Office of the Chief Information Officer. [This paragraph added 22 April 2010.]
This information may be of particular interest to those developing legal information systems, and those following the Law.gov legal open government data project.
PACER is the fee-based legal information service of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC) Public Access and Records Management Division.
The GPO FDsys pilot program seems consistent with the goals of the Law.gov legal open government data project.
The announcement appears to contain one partially inaccurate statement: “All court opinions are available through PACER free of charge, and that will not change.” This statement appears to be inaccurate in two respects, as I verified by PACER searches performed this week. First, many U.S. federal district court opinions placed in PACER prior to the installation of “District Court CM/ECF version 2.4″ — which appears to have occurred in most courts in 2005 or 2006 — are available to the public only for a fee (click here for the PACER document stating this policy; and see as an example the district court opinion in Parker v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 03-0213 (EGS) (D.D.C. Mar. 31, 2004), document number 35 on the docket numbered 1:03-cv-00213-EGS available via the D.D.C. PACER site).
Second, public users are charged a fee to access U.S. federal circuit court opinions through U.S. federal district court dockets accessible via U.S. federal circuit court PACER sites, and through federal district court PACER sites. See, e.g., the Eighth Circuit opinion in Milavetz, Gallop & Milavetz, P.A. v. United States, No. 07-2405 (8th Cir. Sept. 4, 2008), available through the Eighth Circuit PACER site and the D. Minn. PACER site as document 56 on the docket numbered 0:05-cv-02626-JMR-FLN .
Employees of the AOUSC are currently reviewing the accuracy of the statement, “All court opinions are available through PACER free of charge, and that will not change.” I hope they will soon issue a correction to that statement. I am grateful to several AOUSC and PACER Service Center employees, and to Stephen Schultze of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy for their assistance this week respecting this issue.
[NOTE: Updated on 27 December 2009 to add the final four paragraphs.]
Why is this of potential interest to the legal community? First, attorneys, legal IT personnel, and law librarians can download the CFR in XML and process it so that they, their colleagues, and the communities they serve can use it free of charge, without incurring the costs of using a for-fee online service. The XML markup enables the code to be output in a wide range of formats or integrated with a number of other information resources.
Second, many organizations that publish legal information for free on the Internet or at low cost — such as the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University and Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy and its FedThread federal regulations publishing project — can download the CFR, process it, and make it available to the legal community and the public. This should result in greater competition in the market for legal information and ultimately lower costs for users of legal information.
These data access initiatives are consistent with such law-related Open Government Data activities as the U.S. Government’s Open Government Directive and the Law.gov project, which will be the subject of a number of public meetings throughout the U.S. in the first half of 2010.