Courtney Minick

Courtney Minick

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EraserBy now, you’ve all read that Justice Antonin Scalia made a series of mistakes in the dissenting opinion of EPA v. EME Homer City Generation, L.P. The Supreme Court issued a corrected version of the opinion on its website. For more on the story, read the coverage in the WSJ Law Blog, the Volokh Conspiracy, or SCOTUSBlog. They’ll give you the background – this post will discuss publishing implications, and why it’s problematic that the Court doesn’t notify the public when they make revisions to opinions.

Here’s how the Supreme Court’s electronic publishing process works. The first version of the opinion, called the bench opinion, is released in XML format to a handful of publishers (the “Project Hermes” feed). Later that day, a PDF version – the “slip opinion” – is released on the Court’s website. The slip opinions may be further edited, and then the official opinions are published in the bound volumes as citable opinions.

The Supreme Court’s website issues the following disclaimer about the slip opinions found therein:

Caution: These electronic opinions may contain computer-generated errors or other deviations from the official printed slip opinion pamphlets. Moreover, a slip opinion is replaced within a few months by a paginated version of the case in the preliminary print, and–one year after the issuance of that print–by the final version of the case in a U. S. Reports bound volume. In case of discrepancies between the print and electronic versions of a slip opinion, the print version controls. In case of discrepancies between the slip opinion and any later official version of the opinion, the later version controls.

The Court occasionally issues new versions of slip opinions, but they don’t always notify the public when they do so.  Professor Emeritus of Cornell Law School and legal information expert Peter Martin has written about this, noting that most changes are for minor typographical errors. However, there have been instances where a significant change was made:

Far more recent history includes the removal of a lengthy footnote from the majority opinion in Skilling v. United States, 561 U.S. 358 (2010).  The slip opinion file now at the Court’s web site carries no notice of the revision beyond the indication in the “properties” field that it was modified over two weeks after the opinion’s filing date.  To see the original footnote 31 one must go to the CourtListener site or a collection like that of Cornell’s LII built on the assumption that a slip opinion distributed by the Court on day of decision will not be changed prior to its appearance in a preliminary print.

The changes made to Scalia’s dissent in EME Homer were arguably significant. They were also very public. As far as I can tell, it was Law Professor Richard Lazarus who first discovered the error. He blogged about it, it was picked up by national news, and that’s why we know that the change was made. The Supreme Court notified Professor Lazarus of the change, but there is no mention of it on their site. They simply swapped opinions.


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Ventura County CourthouseCourthouse News Service won a ruling in the Ninth Circuit recently for access to court filings. CNS went to federal court last year to challenge the Ventura County Superior Court policy of delaying the release of court opinions.  A U.S. district court judge dismissed the case, finding that it was not a First Amendment issue, but a claim that involved sensitive state information, and that the federal court should abstain. The Ninth Circuit overturned that ruling and remanded the case to the federal district court for a decision on the merits.

Courthouse News Service is a periodical that covers courthouses all over the United States. They send reporters into courts every day to review the filings and write about the newsworthy cases. Most courts in California allow reporters daily access to the filings, but Ventura County has a policy that delays reporter access until “official processing” is completed, at which point the cases are no longer breaking news.

The Ninth Circuit found a clear First Amendment interest in immediate reporter access to the opinions. In the opinion, Judge Wardlaw wrote, “CNS’s First Amendment right of access claim falls within the general rule against abstaining under Pullman in First Amendment cases. CNS’s right of access claim implicates the same fundamental First Amendment interests as a free expression claim, and it equally commands the respect and attention of the federal courts.” We have the featured the trial and appellate court filings on Justia Dockets. You can read the full opinion and summary on Justia, as well.


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Confidential FileDelaware Courts of Chancery appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court recently, seeking to validate a law that would allow them to hold confidential arbitration proceedings for parties with $1M litigation at stake. Professor Judith Resnik wrote about this in the NYT Op-Ed pages,  “Renting Judges for Secret Rulings.”

On appeal is the question whether this arbitration process, established by the Delaware Legislature and codified at Del. Code Ann. Tit. 10 § 349 violates the First Amendment’s right to public access for court proceedings.

The Delaware Legislature passed the law in 2009. It allows litigants with an amount in controversy over $1M to pay a $12,000 fee (and $6,000 per day) to conduct private arbitration in state courts, with a sitting state judge presiding over the proceedings. The verdict from this arbitration is final, as an enforceable judicial decision. The filings are not docketed, and the decisions are not published.

The Delaware Coalition for Open Government (DCOG) sued to have the law overturned after it was passed. The district court found that the law violated the First Amendment, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed. The question presented in the petition writ for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court is whether under the “experience and logic” test, established by earlier SCOTUS cases, these cases may be held confidential, or closed to public access.


Posted in: First Amendment

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PACER LogoOhhhhh PACER.

I’m a little bit behind on complaining about it, so here’s the executive summary to catch everyone up: One month after they celebrated 25 years of PACER, the whole thing went down, twice in one week.

In case you missed it, the Administrative Office of Courts issued a statement in December celebrating the twenty five year anniversary of PACER. The electronic filing service was started in 1988. It ushered in the era of electronic filing for federal court documents. To me, the irony of this “celebration” is that PACER, and the local CM/ECF systems, have barely changed since then.

As usual, the Third Branch PR team leads with how PACER has made access “universal.”

“Twenty-five years ago, the vast majority of cases were practically obscure. Today, every Third Branch court is using CM/ECF and PACER,” said Michel Ishakian, chief of staff for the AO’s Department of Program Services, who oversaw PACER from 2008 to 2013. “That means that all dockets, opinions, and case file documents can be accessed world-wide in real time, unless they are sealed or otherwise restricted for legal purposes. This level of transparency and access to a legal system is unprecedented and unparalleled.”

This is technically correct – but Mr. Ishakian neglects two caveats to this statement:

1. Users have to pay to access these documents. You pay to search for them, and you pay to download them.

2. The “opinions” available on PACER are slip opinions, not officially published case law. That means they can’t be cited in court.


Tagged: pacer, recap

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Open DataJosh Tauberer recently announced the release of “Open Government Data: Best Practices Language for Making Data ‘License Free.’ That document sets forth recommendations for federal agencies issuing data, and sample Creative Commons Zero (public domain) licensing statements.

In the memorandum, Mr. Tauberer and his colleagues discuss how open licensing protocols can be applied by various federal government authors—agencies in house, through contractors, or a mix—to different outputs, such as codes, laws, reports, etc. The overriding principle is that because the federal government’s material is not subject to copyright protection, a CC0 license will make it clear to users that the government disclaims its copyright.

When contractors are involved, things get a little more complicated: “Works produced under a contract with the government may be subject to copyright protection. Any such contract should specify that any copyright in the work is transferred to the government.” Transferring the copyright to the government, of course, obviates it, as federal government works are not subject to copyright protection under the Copyright Act. For mixes of government and non-government works, they recommend that “non-governmental contributors be required to waive copyright protection to their submissions,” which is another way of bringing taxpayer funded government work product into the public domain. This shouldn’t be a controversial proposition, but we’ve seen what happens when private standards are incorporated by reference into law.


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959347_magnifying_glassThe Administrative Office of the Courts announced yesterday that FDSys will now include opinions from 64 federal courts.  The program to integrate federal court opinions into FDSys began in 2011.  In 2011, they added opinions from 12 courts. In 2012, they increased that number to 28 courts.  In February of this year, they announced that they were expanding the program. And now we know they have increased the number of courts to 64. According to today’s press release, they are backfilling some jurisdictions, putting in an archive back to 2004. They claim to have 750,000 opinions in FDSys now.

According to the statement, “FDsys currently contains opinions from 8 appellate courts, 20 district courts, and 35 bankruptcy courts.”  To put this in perspective, there are 17 circuit courts, 94 district courts, and 195 bankruptcy courts.  All together, they are pulling opinions from 63 of 307 federal courts (roughly). That’s 21% of the federal jurisdictions in 3 years.

As usual, I feel compelled to say “it’s great that they’re doing this, BUT”—they’re focusing on the wrong things. Why are they pulling documents from district courts and bankruptcy courts? The case law that most people care about is appellate opinions that create precedent.  In federal jurisdictions, this means the Circuit Courts of Appeal and the United States Supreme Court.  FDSys has no SCOTUS opinions (which are freely available on the Court’s site), and only about half of the Circuit Courts of Appeal.  Some district court opinions are interesting and useful, and I suppose the same is true for bankruptcy court opinions, but why are they being added ahead of the Supreme Court? 750,000 documents is a lot—my guess is they’re pulling in random orders and rulings that are part of the public record but not especially useful in legal research.


Tagged: aoc, fdsys, free law

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Money RoadCourthouse News reported this week on the “land grab” in California’s local court systems. When the courts announced last year that they were killing the CCMS (California Case Management System), vendors pounced on the opportunity to provide contracted solutions in its place. CCMS was a project started by the California courts over ten years ago. It was intended to link all of the county and state courthouses together into a centralized docketing system. As Courthouse news reports, however,

The massive CCMS project was deep-sixed last year by the Judicial Council under pressure from the Legislature, after the Administrative Office of the Courts had spent $520 million in taxpayer money over ten years on a project that was nowhere near completion and carried a projected price tag of $1.9 billion.

Now that CCMS is dead, Courts are turning to the private sector to update their docketing systems, which languished while waiting for the new system. Three bidders have emerged as candidates for the new systems: New Mexico-based Justice Systems Inc., Texas-based Tyler Technologies, and Pennsylvania-based LT-Tech owned by Thomson Reuters (formerly West Publishing). According to Courthouse News, “The deals have three basic financial components, licensing and installation for millions of dollars, yearly upkeep for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and, a golden egg, the right to charge lawyers a fee, generally around $5, for every document electronically filed.”


Posted in: Legal Research

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lavabitThe Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently unsealed the documents in the FBI action against Lavabit, Inc – Edward Snowden’s email provider. In July of 2013, the FBI sought a search warrant in the Eastern District of Virginia. Rather than turn over the encryption key that would allow the government to read the emails that Snowden sent, and risking exposure for other clients of the service, Lavabit closed its operations. You can read about the case at Wired and Techdirt. We found the (unsealed) docket and have it featured here, with all of the filings.


Posted in: Legal News, Privacy

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The City of Detroit filed for Bankruptcy protection last week. It is the largest municipality in the US to seek such relief.

Justia is collecting the documents filed in the case and posting them here.

For more information on the news story, check out the Detroit Free Press Coverage.


Posted in: Legal News

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US Capitol BuildingThe US Government  responded yesterday to the FISC’s order to conduct a declassification review in the Yahoo case. Their response asks for 45 and 60 days to complete the full review. They cite the need for interagency coordination, the volume and type of materials, and multiple FOIA requests in support of this request.

In the Microsoft and Google cases, the Government asked for a third extension of its deadline to respond to Microsoft’s motion. Microsoft and Google both consented to the extension.

In other news about the FISA Court, Reggie B. Walton, the presiding judge, responded to Sen. Patrick Leahy’s request for more information about the court processes and procedures. On July 18, Sen. Leahy requested this information in preparation for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the implementation of FISA Authorities (scheduled for July 31).


Posted in: Laws, Legal News