February 14, 2009

An Effort to Upgrade a Court Archive System to Free and Easy

AMERICANS HAVE grown accustomed to finding just about anything they want online fast, and free. But for those searching for federal court decisions, briefs and other legal papers, there is no Google

Instead, there is Pacer, the government-run Public Access to Court Electronic Records system designed in the bygone days of screechy telephone modems. Cumbersome, arcane and not free, it is everything that Google is not.

Recently, however, a small group of dedicated open-government activists teamed up to push the court records system into the 21st century — by simply grabbing enormous chunks of the database and giving the documents away, to the great annoyance of the government.

“Pacer is just so awful,” said Carl Malamud, the leader of the effort and founder of a nonprofit group, Public.Resource.org. “The system is 15 to 20 years out of date.”

Worse, Mr. Malamud said, Pacer takes information that he believes should be free — government-produced documents are not covered by copyright — and charges 8 cents a page. Most of the private services that make searching easier, like Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis, charge far more, while relative newcomers like AltLaw.org, Fastcase.com and Justia.com, offer some records cheaply or even free. But even the seemingly cheap cost of Pacer adds up, when court records can run to thousands of pages. Fees get plowed back to the courts to finance technology, but the system runs a budget surplus of some $150 million, according to recent court reports.

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