Turning PACER Around, One Document at a Time


Back in April I wrote a story for Ars Technica about PACER, the federal judiciary’s website(s) for public access to court records. Transparency is a fundamental principle of our judicial system because it allows us to fully understand the laws that bind us. Yet when it comes to accessing judicial records online, the judiciary falls well short of this ideal. PACER locks documents behind a paywall—charging 8 cents per “page”—and forces users to use a cumbersome search interface that’s inscrutible to non-lawyers.

recaplogo-betaTonight I’m excited to announce RECAP, a project I’ve been working on for a few months. It’s co-authored by fellow grad student Harlan Yu and friend Steve Schultze, under the supervision of my advisor Ed Felten.

What RECAP does is very simple: whenever a user downloads (and pays for) a document from PACER, RECAP helps the user automatically send a copy of that document to a public archive hosted by the Internet Archive. In addition (and here’s the real selling point for users), if a user searches for a document that’s already in the public archive, RECAP will notify the user of this fact and give him the option of downloading the free version, saving the user money on PACER fees. Users can (to paraphrase Carl Malamud) save money as they save public access to the law.

Why is this important? Well, as some of my colleagues have pointed out, there’s tremendous potential for private-sector actors to do useful things with public data once it’s been pried out of the hands of the government. I don’t know what those uses might be for judicial records, but I’m confident there will be some. Moreover, judicial records are particularly important because legal decisions are binding precedent. If it’s hard for me to access the law, it’s hard for me to learn what the law requires of me. So think it’s unacceptable that almost 20 years after the emergence of the web, judicial records still aren’t freely and publicly available.

The success of our project will depend on convincing lawyers to download our plugin. So if you know any lawyers, please pass the news along. The installation process is painless and the software is extremely user-friendly.

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12 Responses to Turning PACER Around, One Document at a Time

  1. Dave W. says:

    That is so cool! I say this as a person who: (i) sometimes cannot find cases because of the weakness of the PACER search engine; and (ii) sometimes does not download documents because of the PACER pay wall.

  2. K. Whitney says:

    Our office has to use Internet Explorer for our work, will RECAP be available to use with that soon? Otherwise, I’ve already passed on your post to the rest of my office! Thanks!

  3. Unfortunately converting the extension to work with Internet Explorer would be a lot of work, and I doubt we’ll do so any time soon. You should point out to your firm’s IT department that you’d be saving yourselves (or your clients) a lot of money if you started running Firefox. 🙂

  4. K. Whitney says:

    Oh, I’ve tried! For whatever reason, our IT department wants us using Internet Explorer! 🙁

    Maybe someday we will all use Firefox and be able to use your fine program and have free access to documents!

  5. Schlomo McGill says:

    Well — this does make things easier for the judiciary. They’d been hard at work creating policies and software that would allow attorneys to view ex-parte and sealed filings online. Now that there’s a plugin that will publish this stuff without any intervention from the user, there’s no need. It will never get approved now.

  6. Thanks for commenting. RECAP is only activated when someone is on PACER. When an attorney logs into his CM/ECF account, PACER gets de-activated automatically. So assuming this system would provide the sealed documents via the CM/ECF side of things, there’s no danger of them leaking out into the public repository.

  7. NObody says:

    What does CM/ECF stand for?

    btw, great work on this Firefox extension. I truly despise how the government charges $ for PACER.

  8. CM/ECF is the system that attorneys representing parties to a federal case use to submit documents to the court. We disable RECAP while they’re logged in because they might have access to records that are not public.

  9. Sharon Baker says:

    On a similar note, http://freecourtdockets.com offers free federal dockets 100% free and the user do not need a pacer log in either. Sign up for an invite code and there you have it. It looks like they are trying to solve the problem on an ad-supported model.

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