New tools are emerging that are making it a little cheaper and a little easier to access federal court filings via the judiciary's online PACER system. In this case, RECAP, a free plug-in for the popular Firefox web browser, may make direct access to court documents both free and easy.
Documents filed in court are generally open to the public (unless the court has entered a specific order sealing papers filed in the public docket). Physical copies can be obtained directly from the courthouse. The documents may also be accessed through the dated PACER system, which requires that users log in with a password and pay 8 cents per page for any document accessed. Thus, at least in theory, court filings are open to the public. The fact that these documents are either kept at individual courthouses or accessible through a pay-per-page online service sometimes keep court documents from being widely disseminated. That is changing.
The Center for Information Technology Policy has released RECAP a free plug-in for the popular Firefox web browser which allows people seeking particular PACER documents to view them for free (sort of). Once you load up RECAP, you have free access to any court document that has been viewed by another RECAP user. If you are the first RECAP user to access the document, you will incur normal PACER charges, but if the document has already been viewed and transferred into the RECAP database, you will get it for free. This essentially allows users of the PACER system to slowly create a secondary archive of these public documents which can be accessed for free.
The makers of RECAP are aware of the potential privacy concerns that their program raises, and address them directly on their homepage, noting that they have taken particular precautions to make sure that potentially personal information is not too easily accessed. Nonetheless, this points out that information in public documents is public and becoming increasingly accessible by the casual researcher, as this trend continues it becomes increasingly incumbent upon the person filing materials with the court to safeguard potentially sensitive information.
Some advocates have argued that keeping court documents behind PACER's password protected log-in and charging a fee to view them, makes the documents far less public than they should be if we are to have a truly open and public legal system. In part in response to these concerns a test program, granting open and free access to all PACER documents for select libraries, was quickly shut down when it was discovered that nearly 20% of PACER documents had been downloaded by two individuals. Note that the federal judiciary has announced a self-assessment of the PACER system, stating "The goal of the assessment is to identify potential enhancements to existing services and new public access services that could be provided."
- Center for Information Technology Policy homepage
- Firefox homepage
- PACER homepage
- RECAP homepage
- Security Privacy and the Law, “Electronic Access to Court Filings Potentially Exposing Sensitive, Personal Information” Ramzi Ajami (4/9/09)
- Wired “Firefox Plug-In Frees Court Records, Threatens Judiciary Profits” by Ryan Singel (8/14/09)