Opening Up the Law: Pacer, CITP, and the RECAP the Law Project

recap-diagAs some of you know I am a Visiting Fellow this year at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy. When I arrived a couple weeks ago, I heard about a project in the works and have been dying to tell people about it. It is now live and looks great. It is called RECAP and just may change the way people access a major part of the law. We’re talking about the law that lurks outside cases; the actual guts of litigation.

Attorneys live and die by documents. As I tell my students, you must write well, because lawyers are paid in large part to write. With around 1.1 million attorneys practicing in the U.S., a large amount of paper, a.k.a., courts documents, is generated each and every day. Court documents are essentially public documents (there are times when papers are sealed etc., but that is a separate matter). The government runs a system called PACER that allows one to search for and access U.S. Appellate, District, and Bankruptcy court records and documents. But as the Washington Post explains, “The fee to access PACER is $0.08 per page: ‘The per page charge applies to the number of pages that results from any search, including a search that yields no matches (one page for no matches.) The charge applies whether or not pages are printed, viewed, or downloaded.’ For people who do a lot of legal research, those fees add up quickly.”

In an era of transparent government, open source, and access-to-knowledge movements, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to find a way to make court documents available on a broader basis. The folks at Stanford have the IP Litigation Clearing House. That project aims to fill the “critical need for a comprehensive, online resource for scholars, policy makers, industry, lawyers, and litigation support firms in the field of intellectual property litigation.” That project has 23,000 documents and is growing. Pretty darn good, if you ask me. But wait; don’t order yet! Now comes RECAP from the folks at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy. (Specifically, Harlan Yu, Steve Schultze, and Timothy B. Lee developed the project which is led by Prof. Ed Felten). Here is the link to the About Page, but let me tell you a little more.

CITP’s Harlan Yu explains:

RECAP is a plug-in for the Firefox web browser that makes it easier for users to share documents they have purchased from PACER, the court’s pay-to-play access system. With the plug-in installed, users still have to pay each time they use PACER, but whenever they do retrieve a PACER document, RECAP automatically and effortlessly donates a copy of that document to a public repository hosted at the Internet Archive.

In addition, if one is using PACER and RECAP “The documents in this repository are, in turn, shared with other RECAP users, who will be notified whenever documents they are looking for can be downloaded from the free public repository.” So when one searches for a document, one is notified about the availability of a free copy of the document.

There is probably much more to say here, but for now I want to congratulate the folks here at CITP on a great idea that uses information, technology, law, and policy to craft an elegant solution to increasing government transparency. This resource should feed almost anyone interested in practicing or studying the law. Empirical researchers alone should be drooling at this new wealth of information.