Thursday, February 7, 2019
A suit pending appeal in the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals is asking for an end to administrative fees for accessing documents filed in the federal courts. Public judicial documents are located in the electronic database, Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, or PACER. Anyone can access the system, but there is a fee of 10 cents per page.
The E-Government Act of 2002 authorized the judiciary to charge PACER access fees, but the fees were limited to "the extent necessary" to provide access to these records. At 10 cents per page, it may seem minuscule in the abstract, but when looking at the actual intake PACER has had, there are legitimate questions about whether this charge is exorbitant. For an example, even though PACER cost $3 million to operate in 2016, it brought in over $146 million in fees. For anyone who's had to navigate the clunky interface that reminds a user of the nostalgia of how the internet used to work, it would not be unreasonable to wonder where all that money is going.
The lawsuit brought against the United States by National Veterans Legal Services Program, the National Consumer Law Center and the Alliance for Justice asks exactly that - where is this money going?
From 2010 to 2016, the federal courts collected $920 million in Pacer fees. During that period, the judiciary spent about $185 million of the money on courtroom technology, and millions more on other projects, including $75 million for automated notices to creditors in bankruptcy cases.
While those expenditures seem in line with the dictates of the law, the trial court found not all of them to be appropriate. Both sides are appealing this decision.
To go further, a group of retired federal judges have filed an amicus brief substantiating their position that PACER should be free. Judge Posner is among the amici.
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed earlier this month, they argued that PACER should charge no fees at all, citing the need for judicial transparency and the benefits for researchers, journalists, and prisoners who represent themselves in court. “Given the public’s strong interest in accessing court records, the judiciary should bear the cost of PACER’s operations,” the brief said. “This is consistent with the courts’ longstanding tradition of providing free access for all who come into the courtroom.”
Without having knowledge and information about the expenditures or the entire budget allotted to the federal judiciary it's hard to say whether the money collected via PACER is in compliance with the law or whether it is being wisely spent. However, the unexplained lack of attention to bring the PACER system into the year 2019, sure seems to indicate that the judiciary should try filing some documents in order to gain a perspective for those on the other side of the bench. They may have a new appreciation for techie upgrades!
Wednesday, February 6, 2019
The official U.S. Reports versions of Supreme Court opinions have been online for a long time. Seriously: all you need to do is cruise over to the Library of Congress's site, do some scrolling and some clicking to hunt down the volume you need, then do some more clicking and some more scrolling to get to case you need. Or, for relatively recent cases, you can go to the Supreme Court's site and do a slightly less elaborate click-and-scroll dance.
It's as tedious as it sounds.
That's why I'm celebrating scotuslink.com, a nifty little online service from Orin Kerr and a dev who goes by the Twitter handle of birds five underscores (@birds_____). The concept is simple: you go to the site, plug in the U.S. Reports citation, and get routed to a PDF copy of the case. The service generates the snarly URI required to get where you need to go in the LoC or SCOTUS catalogs. No searching or scrolling required. I've found it a big time/aggravation-saver for cite-checking and for diving into oldies like Chisholm v. Georgia.
A nice bonus: the design and code are great: simple, clean, and thoughtful.
Thursday, May 10, 2018
Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School
The big news this week in field of law and typography was a Washington Post story about a study that purports to settle the one versus two-space controversy that rages on appellate-minded websites, listservs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts. Even on this Appellate Advocacy Blog, editor Tessa Dysart chimed in earlier this week. For those of you who are two-space fanatics, I am going to do more than repeat what you may have already heard, i.e. that the study is deeply flawed (although I will quickly review it). Mostly, I am going to suggest that you reflect on your dry, compassionate-less soul and then put down your personal preferences to instead be a citizen of the world.
But before I continue along these lines, I want to reiterate the scientific flaws in the study that have been ably and articulately pointed out by the best typographer and design expert in law—Matthew Butterick. I have had the pleasure of presenting with LWI Golden Pen recipient Matthew Butterick, and I know that when he writes something, he’s carefully researched and analyzed it first. Right away, Butterick calls attention to the central flaw of the study. It was done using the monospaced (typewriter-like) typeface of Courier, which is still required by the upper courts of New Jersey. To try and shake loose the New Jersey committee overseeing court rule changes, I researched the educational and cognitive science of readability and in 2004 published Painting with Print: Incorporating Concepts and Layout Design into the Text of Legal Writing Documents. The New Jersey officials were not persuaded but other courts were, and the article appeared by invitation on the 7th Circuit’s website for twelve years.
Because it is a monospaced typeface, two spaces must appear at the end of each sentence. Otherwise it is too difficult to determine whether there has actually been a break in the prose. But people don’t use typewriter fonts when they have the choice to use a proportionally spaced one such as the one you are reading right now. And there’s a reason for that. Courier, and typefaces like it, are 4.7% more difficult to read than proportionally spaced type. That equals a slowdown of fifteen words per minute, which Dr. Miles Tinker, the lead psychologist who studied the issue deemed “significant.” In his studies, readers consistently ranked proportionally spaced typefaces ahead of monospaced ones. In other words, the new study is flawed both in using a typeface that people don’t normally choose, and in using a typeface that essentially requires two spaces to be able to discern the difference between the end of a sentence or not. The people conducting the study put the cart before the horse. That’s just poor science.
Now, I promised you a lambasting, and here it is. Two spaces after periods take up more space and for lawyers who find themselves up against a page limit, or who wonder why paper is so expensive, think about whether you can save yourself some space and money by switching over to one space instead. You can also cut down on use of one of the most noxious and wasteful products we use: paper. In this country, paper is the largest source of municipal waste, and paper creation is the fourth worst industry for the environment. I wrote about this too, in a follow-up article, Conserving the Canvas: Reducing the Environmental Footprint of Legal Briefs by Re-imagining Court Rules and Document Design Strategies. Two spaces after periods actually contribute to the polluting of the environment. Yes, that extra space really does cost something to use.
And, if you are in the Seventh Circuit, you don’t even have a choice. The judges care a great deal about typography and instruct lawyers to use only one space after periods.
So, there you have it, two-spacers. An inconvenient truth. There’s logos, pathos, and ethos to using only one space. Your preference harms the Earth, eats into your page limits, and costs you and your clients more money to use. The so-called study is junk science. Are there really any justifiable reasons left to continue your inconsiderate punctuation practices?
 Miles A. Tinker, Legibility of Print 47–48 (Iowa State U. Press 1964) (synthesizing several decades of psychological research on typeface and readability).
 There are also other ways to save yourself some money and ecological ruin. When rules don’t require double-spacing: don’t. It’s harder to read anyway. And when courts allow you to use double-sided printing, do so.
May 10, 2018 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, August 14, 2017
The Supreme Court recently announced that on November 13, 2017, its electronic filing system will be up and running. Thankfully, the Court’s program will not be part of the PACER system. Rather, according to the National Journal, the Court’s main page will include a button for “Electronic Filing.” The filings will be “accessible without cost to the public and legal community.”
While this is a huge step forward for the Court, it will not, initially, eliminate the requirement that parties file paper copies. According to the Court’s press release,
Initially the official filing of documents will continue to be on paper in all cases, but parties who are represented by counsel will also be required to submit electronic versions of documents through the electronic filing system. The filings will then be posted to the Court’s docket and made available to the public through the Court’s website. Filings from parties appearing pro se will not be submitted through the electronic filing system, but will be scanned by Court personnel and made available for public access on the electronic docket.
E-filing has been around for some time, and is mandatory in most, if not all, federal courts. It is slowly taking over in the state courts too. The National Center for State Courts provides information on the state of e-filing in the states, including links to the various court rules.
While e-filing certainly has its strengths, it doesn’t mean that one can procrastinate to file a brief until minutes before it is due. Be sure to understand the requirements for e-filing in your jurisdiction, including any size limitations and the amount of time it takes to get a login.
Monday, January 19, 2015
Judicial transparency seems to be a popular issue of late, and I thought I'd pass along some recent news items on the issue.
Public.Resource.Org has a new memorandum regarding the PACER system. Drafted as a "Memorandum of Law" in "The United States Court of Appeals for Public Opinion," the document is a cheeky, well-written explanation of the access problems with the PACER system. The memorandum notes the outdated and rudimentary technical interface, fee and access barriers, and "the almost universal condemnation of PACER from the outside world." It suggests a "national strategy of litigation, supplication, and agitation." The last of these proposes a May 1 day of PACER protest, including various means to bring public dissatisfaction with PACER to the federal courts' attention.
Second, Eric Segall has a post on Dorf on Law examining the U.S. Supreme Court's the Court’s "complete lack of transparency across the range of its official duties." Leading with the example of the court's direct communication with the public timed for 6 p.m. New Year's Eve, the post also examines the courts lack of advance notice of when its decisions in cases will be published, the lack of televised coverage, and other limitations on the Court's transparency.
Third, William Baude has a new piece up on SSRN, Foreword: The Supreme Court's Shadow Docket, which examines "the Court’s shadow docket — a range of orders and summary decisions that defy its normal procedural regularity." Ultimately, after review, Baude concludes, "if there is a problem at the Supreme Court, it may be the opposite of the usual narrative. It is on technical procedural and administrative questions when the spotlight is off that the Court’s decisions seem to deviate from its otherwise high standards of transparency and legal craft." This seems consistent with what Circuit judges and federal court scholars have said for years about unpublished opinions.
hat tip on that last item to the Legal Theory Blog.
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
There is an interesting post today at Legal Research & Writing Pro Blog about how judges read appellate materials in the ever-expanding age of electronic resources. As the post notes, as federal courts and an increasing number of state courts have moved to electronic filing, judges have also moved toward reading materials, including briefs, on electronic devices such as laptops and iPads.
The post notes that changes in how judges are reading briefs -- from paper to electronic -- comes with a potential for real differences in impact. There are studies suggesting that readers tend to skim electronic materials more than they do paper materials, but also that active engagement with the electronic material can substantially improve comprehension.
As the post suggests, there are also some potential new advantages to the prevalence of electronic resources in appellate practice. Citations can be hyperlinked to research sources so that judges can quickly and effectively jump right to the authority; similarly, annotations to the appellate record can be hyperlinked to the relevant part of the record in jurisdictions that have invested in the necessary software. An April post on Cite Blog included thoughts about those kinds of hyperlinks.
A couple of years ago I presented at a symposium at Washburn Law School where there was a presentation from an attorney who did a great deal of practice in various federal courts across the country. He talked about embedding digital information in briefs, including hyperlinks to video excerpts from video depositions, hyperlinks to exhibits, etc., in addition to the more conventional hyperlinks that could appear to authorities. It certainly seems that the continuing development of digital practice would point to a future with vast opportunity to connect the appellate materials in profound ways.
For some additional thoughts, see a post from back in January over at Volokh Conspiracy, with additional discussion in the comments.
Thoughts? Is the increased use of digital resources by courts impacting the way you present arguments in your appellate briefs? Have you seen this as a good development, or one with significant pitfalls? And is legal education keeping up with these kinds of trends? Share your thoughts in the comments!
September 3, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)
Thursday, June 12, 2014
Following the Adam Liptak piece on Professor Richard Lazarus' new study, that I mentioned in my last post, a clever coder has developed a way to monitor, identify, and publicize any changes to U.S. Supreme Cout opinions. David Zvenyach, general counsel to the Council of the District of Columbia, has launched @SCOTUS_servo, to help identify any changes. The Twitter feed reports the result of comparison of the prior verison of court opinions to those now appearing. The code that does this, a crawler, checks every five minutes for a change and makes an automated post to the Twitter account reporting any change that has been made. Zvenyach then makes a manual tweet detailing and highlighting the actual change.
This is a useful service for forcing transparency regardless of how important any individual change might be to the followers of@SCOTUS_servo. More details available at this Gigaom post by Jeff John Roberts.
Sunday, March 23, 2014
The Sixth Circuit Appellate Blog has an interesting piece on when it's acceptable for advocates and appellate judges to go beyond the appellate record to do internet research (or even live reenactments). I think that all such outside references present a problem, but the issues are different depending on whether the advocates or court is doing the extra-record research. When the parties make extra-record references, those references are subject to the adversarial process. As the Sixth Circuit Appellate Blog post notes, a motion to strike can be considered and pursued or waived depending on the importance of the content and egregiousness of the extra-record reference. When the court does its own research, whether that's internet research or live reenactments, the action is not subject to the adversarial process. A party's only recourse is to seek hearing en banc or Supreme Court cert, both exceedingly rare audiences to obtain.
As outside research becomes easier, particularly through the internet, the boundaries of such research should be carefully considered and enforced.
Monday, February 3, 2014
Is link rot destroying stare decisis as we know it? That's a great question. If appellate courts are citing to internet sources and those sources are disappearing (link rot), often within just a few years, that does seem to pose a problem for future litigants and courts in determining the basis for the earlier courts' decision.
Arturo Torres, Associate Dean for Library and Information Technology and Professor of Law at the Texas Tech University School of Law, tackled this issue in: Is Link Rot Destroying Stare Decisis as We Know It? The Internet-Citation Practice of the Texas Appellate Courts, 13 J. App. Prac. & Process 269 (2012). The abstract:
In 1995 the first Internet-based citation was used in a federal court opinion. In 1996, a state appellate court followed suit; one month later, a member of the United States Supreme Court cited to the Internet; finally, in 1998 a Texas appellate court cited to the Internet in one of its opinions. In less than twenty years, it has become common to find appellate courts citing to Internet-based resources in opinions. Because of the current extent of Internet-citation practice varies by courts across jurisdictions, this paper will examine the Internet-citation practice of the Texas Appellate courts since 1998. Specifically, this study surveys the 1998 to 2011 published opinions of the Texas appellate courts and describes their Internet-citation practice.
While it appeared in the Journal's Fall 2012 issue, it just popped up on SSRN last month, which makes it current enough to discuss I suppose. The article does a careful and detailed empirical analysis of Texas Supreme and intermediate appellate courts' use of internet citations, citations to publicly available URLs, by court and overall. It then follows up on the internet citations used in these opinions and determines that, of internet citations used in the period between 1998 and 2011, nearly 40% of them no longer function. Table 10 on page 294 documents the link rot year over year, with citations in the late 90s and and early 2000s being mostly non-functional. In addition to documenting the link rot, the article also parses the data in a couple other interesting ways, showing us which courts are more likely to use internet citations and which domains (such as .com, .gov, etc.) are most cited.
In my estimation, the article doesn't really answer whether this admittedly frequent link rot does destroy stare decisis. To answer this question would require examining how the citations were being used and whether their absence affects our ability to understand and apply the cases. The answer may well be "yes," and its a problem that should be addressed regardless, but it may well be that a qualitative analysis of internet citation use proves the loss of these links to be insignificant. For example, if the appellate court gives the substance drawn from the source before citing it, it may often be the court's own adoption or application that matters, and not the availablility of the underlying source. For this or other reasons, link rot may have only a de minimis affect on stare decisis.
Finally, the author's data sorting methodology strikes me as a bit ironic, although this might just be my sensitivity to the issue of unpublished opinions in appellate courts. But given this article's concern with stare decisis, and its conclusion that link rot a priori erodes stare decisis, I was surprised that it completely omits unpublished decisions from the data set. It would seem to me that wholesale elimination of entire appellate opinions (especially in the large volume designated as unpublished) represents a more blatant affront to stare decisis.