RECAP, a Firefox plugin that frees US caselaw one page at a time

Carl Malamud sez,
Earlier this year, 20 million pages of the U.S. Federal Court's PACER database were downloaded, audited for privacy violations, and submitted as evidence to the Judicial Conference, the policy-making body of the courts. That incident led to a Senate investigation, clean-up by 30 district courts, and PACER now requires each lawyer to click at each login that they understand their privacy requirements. (Scribd, PDF )

When public data is locked up behind a cash register, nobody has an incentive to fix privacy problems. Only when the public got access to the data did privacy problems begin to be fixed. When public data becomes public, we also start to see real innovation.

A great example is today's release by Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy of RECAP, a Firefox plugin. RECAP is a public domain proxy that allows professional PACER users--lawyers, journalists, and law students--to save money on access charges and at the same time create a public domain archive. RECAP lets lawyers do good by doing good.

Here's how it works. The 20 million pages harvested earlier this year have been unfolded into the Internet Archive by the Princeton team in a format that includes extras like metadata and SHA1 hashes. When you use the RECAP plugin to access uscourts.gov, if somebody already grabbed this doc, you get it for free. If not, you pay $0.08/page, but the doc gets recycled so the next user gets it free.

Better Access to Public Court Records

Previously on Boing Boing:

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  1. For Firefox they’re ‘extensions’ not ‘plugins’ (Javascript != API).
    RECAP is not public domain but GPLd.

  2. Interesting that the bar graph has the number of domains down to the tenth. How to you withdraw 0.1 domain name?

    I love significant digits.

  3. US Court docs are available to the public- via PACER, for 8 cents a page. That’s still miles cheaper and more convenient than your average FOIA request. Sometimes it seems like federal agencies are damned if they do or if they don’t. When most requesters redacted documents after waiting 30 days or so, as most FOIA requests require that much time to retrieve and review the documents, most are just as likely to complain too much information was redacted. Why beat up on the US Courts for making these documents viewable only from behind a paywall (which charges a minimal fee to help maintain the service) when there are so many agencies that can’t be bothered to digitize their records (or if they do, can’t be bothered to create a web interface for retrieving them- with or without a paywall in place).

  4. RECAP is a wonderful development: it is a brilliant concept. It also has the added advantage of having the potential to assist federal litigators in managing their downloads of CM/ECF files – with meaningful file names.

    The title to this piece with the first sentence is somewhat misleading. As for district court case law, there is no way there are 20 million pages of case law – these are the entire court files and the judicial opinions are a small portion – so, do not get misled by the title. The 20 asserted million pages major value is and was as a test database for the development of RECAP.

    Indeed, all district court opinions are supposed to be free now anyway according the the federal judiciary policy. It is possible to link directly into these opinions and lists of free opinions are available from the Written Opinions Report in CM/ECF. We are pressing the courts to mark opinion documents as written opinions and progress is being made. I do not think RECAP will make much of a difference in this regard.

    In the meantime, websupp.org has far more district court opinions that there are in the 20 million pages of documents referred to above. And,unlike RECAP, websupp.org includes the metadata in the pdf file, has a meaningful file name, has a searchable pdf title with the case name and docket number etc, and date. These are areas where RECAP falls down at the present time, thought we hope that will improve. (and it is not searchable, buts it files will no doubt soon be on open web sites.)

    Omitting the docket number in both the file name and the metadata (as RECAP has done) within the pdf file is truly problematic.

    Let me give you an example. Bulk Resource.org has posted a file from the Daily Brief with nearly 30,000 summaries of new court opinions. Had this listing included the docket number of the cases, then locating the full opinion would be an easy thing to do – accssesing, for example, altlaw for the court of appeal opinions. The docket number of cases in the lingua franca that links everything together. Omitting it is citatioins and articles is dumbing downn and making linking more comples.

    Anyway, RECAP is a great step forward and will importantly open up far more access the briefs behind the court opinions. Now, that is revolutionary. Now it will be transparent when a court ignores inconvenient facts and arguments in the briefs of the parties. These have become avaialble for appellate cases, but less so for trial courts like the district courts.

    Bravo to RECAP. And it is nifty programming geekwise.

    On the other hand, RECAP can only function as a result of the enormous and careful effort that went into the creation and maintenance of CM/ECF – and the effort the Judiciary makes every day to keep the courts functioning and litigators sane. CM/ECF is light years ahead of the systems in most state courts. I really disagree with bashing these “bureaucrats” who actually have done all the hard work. Thank you to those who did the scut work.

    Alan Sugarman

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