Friday, April 04, 2008

U.S. Courts Say No Thanks To Free Case Law

When I was a clerk, I spent quite a bit of time on Westlaw, a pay service, researching cases for memos or opinions. A group of "rogue archivists" at have been working to make case law available free of charge to all. They thought that the U.S. Courts might be interested in obtaining access to their own records without paying a middleman. They were wrong:
Some days, the U.S. government truly astounds. At Public.Resource.Org, we released 50 years of decisions of the U.S. Courts of Appeals. Knowing that the U.S. Courts have to pay big bucks to West Law and Lexis/Nexis to access their own archives, we though they might be interested in having their very own copy.

So, we asked how we could maybe get a phone call to discuss making a donation of case law. Instead of a phone call, the general counsel of the courts (how's that for a meta position!) sent me a letter saying that while this would be great for the public he saw no benefit to the judiciary and our gift offer was hereby declined.

(Not only does the Judiciary spend big bucks on legal information services, this is the same group that runs the billion-dollar IT boondoggle called PACER, which mandates that the public pay $0.08/page for court documents even though they have $146.6 million in unspent funds in their computer account they can't even figure out what to do with.)
(via) If there is some way to avoid ever having to use Westlaw or PACER again, I'll worship these rogue archivists forever (unlikely, alas; sometimes you need more than just the text of a case). A lot of lawyers might forgo headnotes and KeyCites for free access, though, or at least reduce their Westlaw/Lexis use to those instances when it's more useful.
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