May 24, 2024

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.

RECAP has been a success for years now, but Tim, Harlan, and I have each taken on more projects and responsibilities. We will continue to assist with the technical maintenance of RECAP and will advocate alongside Free Law Project for the long-term win of opening PACER altogether (you may not have noticed it, but lawmakers are starting to pay attention).

Free Law Project is also home to the CourtListener platform, which houses another tremendous cache of public court records. RECAP and CourtListener records will be integrated with each other, leading to what we think is the largest body of US caselaw that is available for free online. In an era in which the price of digital storage and transmission is low enough for a few dedicated developers to host such an archive on a shoestring budget, the Judiciary should simply open up all public court records to the public so that every citizen can know the law. Two recent letters to the editor of the ABA Journal highlight the persistent urgency of this issue:

Regarding “Keeping PACER,” March: PacerPro is having you pay to add to its private collection of government works and can turn off your free access to it at any time it chooses—all in exchange for a few minor features, mostly a prettier interface.

But rather than contribute these documents to a company that can lock them up and exploit them, you should use PACER in combination with the RECAP Web browser add-on, which puts these documents in a public archive available to everyone.

Pamela Chestek
Raleigh, N.C.

PACER is evocative of our broken criminal justice system: willfully deficient, where justice is only available to those who can afford it. The real obstacle to change is the fear of government officials, who have become accustomed to the lack of transparency that has become the platform for their corrupt practices. Because fixing PACER is only the first step.

What crimes does the government often charge, only to later drop? How many people like Aaron Swartz are there, bullied and threatened with inflated accusations? How often is a particular person a witness in a case, e.g., a known corrupt cop or expert witness? Those are questions only machine-readable bulk data, accessible to everyone for free, can answer.

It is high time the chief justice of the United States—as the presiding officer of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the supervisory body with authority over both the Administrative Office of the United States Courts and PACER—takes action. And if he won’t do his job, then Congress should.

Eric Branson


  1. What’s up, its good piece off writing regarrding media print, we all
    be familiar with media is a impressive source of information.

  2. fyi the docket, etc., has been made available via RECAP for Carolina Liquid Chemistries Corp. My thinking is that this is the tip of the iceberg in lab fraud…. the tentacles would go quiet far ….

  3. I say that not all in seriousness, but when you get a reply like I got, you have to wonder, what is going on?

  4. I’ve tried to register multiple times on PACER and each time my registration has been rejected. The registration page says you don’t need to register a credit card to get access, and next to the name address area, the website says you need to put in your city, state and zip, but does not mention Street Address. So, as usual, I put in PO Box in the Street address without a number, put in my city, state and zip only to realize that IF YOU DON’T REGISTER A CREDIT CARD, then you have to wait to be MAILED YOUR ACCESS CODES OR WHATEVER IT IS THEY EMAIL YOU TO GET ACCESS. You also have to put in a phone number. Well, I do not have a phone, so I put in all zeros, as you cannot type, “I have no phone.” So, I put in my pre-paid visa card info and it gets rejected. I emailed the service center and I am told, I cannot use a pre-paid card and I have to put in my complete address. I asked, why? Why is the government tracking my personal info just to allow me access to public records? This isn’t just about privacy, it is also freedom of speech as it could be another way for the gov to intimidate free speech later on. How many Americans don’t get access to PACER, because they have no phone and no credit card and don’t want to get mailed info? The PACER Service Center email reply I received, explaining why my registration was rejected for not providing my mailing address, even told me that . . . registrants must provide their mailing address so that PACER can keep users personal information secure – how is mailing me my access codes more secure than online? It is just another way for the government to verify the users mailing address when they do not file a credit card on file, the is associated already with your mailing address. As if that was not frustrating enough, the PACER Service Center email reply to my questions and request for help told me that I . . . always have the option of GOING TO THE COURT HOUSE WHERE THE CASE HAPPENED, to request IN PERSON copies of the documents I was seeking access to PACER to obtain. INSULTING. Like we all have the option to fly to another state to go to a courthouse to request a copy of the court’s case documents. Isn’t that why PACER was developed???? Now I feel really discriminated against! Accessing Federal Cases is not even an option on most STATE CLERK’S WEBSITES, as the state websites simply refer you back to PACER. I recently was reminded of ORWELL’s 1984 and even looked up the book’s synopsis online . . . only to find the U.S. Government acting like Orwell’s Big Brother Bureaucracy the next day. When the NSA is trying to get laws passed that would allow them to fight terrorism by “altering suspects communications” I have to wonder, are they already doing that and doing that with ordinary American’s communications? It is frightening, for that is a way to silent public descent, unpopular opinion and freedom of speech. Are they treating me like that? I’m a good American who loves her country. Still, I am refused access to PACER. Does the NSA know I recently read up on Orwell’s book 1984 and think it is funny to act like Big Brother and deny me access and basically tell me to *#*&$(@#&$ off and take a hike?

  5. Excellent. Regional obstructionism will be a topic worth following.

  6. Dean C. Rowan says

    The judiciary has already opened up all public court records. Anybody is free to travel to (or pay a courier to travel to) a courthouse of his/her choosing to request particular files. (Yes, I’m being sarcastic.) There are other developments worth noting. For one, GPO is working hard to collaborate with private entities to collect, make accessible, and preserve federal government information. However, GPO focuses on congressional and executive branch materials, and there are no plans of which I’m aware to include judicial records. Second, a project at Syracuse University, TRAC, does admirable work compiling information that gets to some of the concerns of the second ABA Journal letter above. TRAC is freely available, but TRACfed, which facilitates mining of federal case information, comes at a cost. It also entails a steep learning curve.

    • Steve Schultze says

      To their credit, the courts have implemented some half-measures on GPO. That is “Excuse #5” in my prior post:

      • Dean C. Rowan says

        I entirely forgot about this project! Compounding my amnesia, I confused GPO’s efforts with those of an alliance of law libraries, LIPA, to preserve government documentation, digital and print. LIPA’s project does not so far include court records.

    • Dave Lewis says

      Where’s the sarcasm?
      The low barrier of ‘if you want to know more then get off your a*s’, go to the courthouse and get the records’ is a huge protection against rendering state compelled personal information into digital infotainment, which it’s currently becoming.

      The current takes the idealogically detached, cheap and easy “FREE SPEECH!” tack but the reality is, infotainment public records is completely ruinous to peoples lives. We see this in the “mugshot extortion industry’, Europe just passed EU wide ‘right to forget’ legislation.

      The balance between information rights and privacy is perfectly struck by keeping records in courthouses, off the internet, or behind a low barrier paywall.

      I know all the cool kids take the opposite position, but those cool kids had better hope their lives aren’t reduced to a criminal charge narrative and thrown out into the world for their friends and enemies to google up for their snickering pleasure.

      • Dean C. Rowan says

        I do sympathize with your invocation of the balance struck by the retention of meat-space archives, although I’d say it doesn’t approach perfection. There are too many other worthy interests served by ready and free online access to (most of) these court filings. Practicing attorneys, pro se litigants, and policy analysts, among others, are well served, for example, by access to arguments made in disputes outside their own local jurisdictions. A big advantage of a free resource, which would indeed be vulnerable to abuse, would be the added value of being able to search for cases like one’s own. One can’t accomplish this by perusing records at individual courthouses, where the situation is a Catch-22: one must know the case whose file one wants to view in order to request it. PACER doesn’t improve matters in this respect, either.

        I have a similar take, however, in response to the so-called right to be forgotten case discussed in the previous FtT post: In appropriate cases, search engines should be required to remove links to “irrelevant” web pages. The determined researcher will have to roll up her sleeves and do some intensive digging to find the unlinked information, just like an old-fashioned historian.

        The sarcasm is prompted by the acknowledgement that the toothpaste is out of the barn (or whatever that saying is). Virtually all recent court documents are digitized and available at no real cost. They are public records. Popular expectations are high that these materials should be easily searched, sorted, identified, and procured at little to no additional expense beyond what we already contribute in taxes.