March 26, 2017

Free Law Project Partnering in Stewardship of RECAP

More than five years ago, I spoke at CITP about the US Federal Courts electronic access system called PACER. I noted that despite centuries of precedent stating that the public should have access to the law as openly and freely as possible, the courts were charging unreasonable rates for access to the public record. As it happened, David Robinson, Harlan Yu, Bill Zeller, and Ed Felten had recently written their paper “Government Data and the Invisible Hand“, arguing that:

…the executive branch should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data.

After my talk, Harlan Yu and Tim Lee approached me with an idea to make millions of court records available for free: a simple browser extension that made it easy for individuals to share the records that they had purchased from PACER with others who were looking for the same records. The idea became RECAP (“turning PACER around”), and the tool has indeed helped to liberate millions of public records in the years since then. But the time has come to turn over our stewardship, and we could not be more pleased that CITP is announcing a new partnership with Free Law Project to take over and expand upon RECAP.
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Two Major updates to RECAP: Developers from Around the World Write Code in Memory of Aaron Swartz

A little over two months ago, we joined with the Think Computer Foundation to offer a set of grants in memory of our friend Aaron Swartz. Aaron worked on many issues in his too-short life, but one of those was liberating American court records from behind a pay-wall. He helped to inspire our RECAP project, which has allowed thousands of people to legally liberate and share millions of public records.

We didn’t know if anyone would take up the challenge, but today we are extremely pleased to award two of these grants. These awards recognize some truly amazing coding by software developers that were inspired by Aaron Swartz and his causes. Over the past several years, the two most-requested features for RECAP have been support for US Courts of Appeals (a.k.a. circuit courts), and a version of RECAP that works with the Chrome browser.

Ka-Ping Yee, Filippo Valsorda, and Alessio Palmero Aprosio represent the best kind of technological idealists. They are idealists that not only believe in worthy causes, but also have the engineering expertise and the dogged determination to see their vision through. Read more about them and install their code at recapthelaw.org.

New Search and Browsing Interface for the RECAP Archive

We have written in the past about RECAP, our project to help make federal court documents more easily accessible. We continue to upgrade the system, and we are eager for your feedback on a new set of functionality.

One of the most-requested RECAP features is a better web interface to the archive. Today we’re releasing an experimental system for searching and browsing, at archive.recapthelaw.org. There are also a couple of extra features that we’re eager to get feedback on. For example, you can subscribe to an RSS feed for any case in order to get updates when new documents are added to the archive. We’ve also included some basic tagging features that lets anybody add tags to any case. We’re sure that there will be bugs to be fixed or improvements that can be made. Please let us know.

The first version of the system was built by an enterprising team of students in Professor Ed Felten’s “Civic Technologies” course: Jen King, Brett Lullo, Sajid Mehmood, and Daniel Mattos Roberts. Dhruv Kapadia has done many of the subsequent updates. The links from the Recap Archive pages point to files on our gracious host, the Internet Archive.

See, for example, the RECAP Archive page for United States of America v. Arizona, State of, et al. This is the Arizona District Court case in which the judge last week issued an order granting injunction against several portions of the controversial immigration law. As you can see, some of the documents have a “Download” link that allows you to directly download the document from the Internet Archive, whereas others have a “Buy from PACER” link because no RECAP users have yet liberated the document.