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Making Court Archives Available to All

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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From the New York Times, “An Effort to Upgrade a Court Archive System to Free and Easy“:

For those searching for federal court decisions, briefs and other legal papers, there is no Google. Instead, there is Pacer, the government-run Public Access to Court Electronic Records system designed in the bygone days of screechy telephone modems. Cumbersome, arcane and not free, it is everything that Google is not. Recently, however, a small group of dedicated open-government activists teamed up to push the court records system into the 21st century — by simply grabbing enormous chunks of the database and giving the documents away, to the great annoyance of the government.

This lack of access has always rubbed me the wrong way. The courts are a public system and the records ought to be open and accessible. Plus, old archaic systems commonly used in the legal research arena are simply not as effective at providing quick and ready access to information as more modern search engines developed for the Internet at large. This appears to be true despite the greater focus and specificity possible with search systems dedicated to legal topics.

On the other hand, there is a real problem of privacy issues in many court filings. But simply relying on “hiding” protected and private information behind obscurity is no protection. Courts, clerks and lawyers need to make sure to redact private information according to court rules (such as social security numbers, data on children, and so on).

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