Our mission

Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

PACER Removes Court Case Documents

On August 10, 2014, The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which runs PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) abruptly announced that a bunch of cases would “no longer be available.” See below for a copy of the announcement and the cases covered.

PACER makes court papers available (for a fee) as well as court opinions (for free). It is not clear from the announcement, but it appears that the removal of these cases will include the removal of the opinions.

Some court opinons are available through CourtWeb (the “Online Federal Court Opinions Information System”) which “provides information on selected recent opinions of those judges of the United States Courts who elect to make information available on this site,” and from the websites of the individual courts.

As a joint “project” of the Government Printing Office and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, FDsys has some United States Courts Opinions, but (apparently) none of the opinions in the list of withdrawn cases and none of the case files that PACER has. PACER includes: a Case Locator service (a national index for U.S. district, bankruptcy, and appellate courts), listings of all parties and participants including judges, attorneys and trustees, compilations of case related information such as cause of action, nature of suit and dollar demand, chronologies of dates of case events entered in the case record, A claims registry, A listing of new cases each day in all courts, Judgments or case status. (In the table below I have included the coverage of case opinions by FDsys.)

There have been attempts, including by Aaron Schwart, to free this information from the fee system (RECAP, Public.Resource.Org), but they have had limited success and have been met with vehement opposition (FBI Investigated Coder for Liberating Paywalled Court Records and Court Tells Users They Can’t Use RECAP).

Although PACER makes court opinions available for free, it is one of the agencies that is required (like NTIS) to recover costs. In 1988, the Judiciary sought appropriations from the U.S. Congress in order to provide electronic public access to court records but Congress did not provide the funds and instead directed the Judiciary to fund the initiative through user fees. As a result, the program relies exclusively on fee revenue (PACER FAQ). It has an elaborate free schedule for searching and obtaining court papers (Electronic Public Access Fee Schedule). The fees that PACER charges have been shown to far exceed its costs (PACER Federal Court Record Fees Exceed System Costs).

Most agencies are permitted by statute to charge fees for access to information. Even GPO is allowed to “charge reasonable fees” (44 USC sec 4102) to the public (although it is required to make its systems available to depository libraries without charge, we all know how well trying to charge the public for information available free at libraries worked out for GPO when it tried to charge for GPO Access back in the 1990s: Privatization of GPO, Defunding of FDsys, and the Future of the FDLP). Still, the threat always remains that Congress will privatize or commercialize or monetize its information “assets” at any time. As long as we rely on GPO and government agencies to preserve and provide free access to government information, we are playing a risky game (When we depend on pointing instead of collecting). If we lose that game, it is our users who will pay the price (and the cost) and they will not thank us for failing to preserve government information and ensure free access to it.

The Annoucement:

On August 11, a change was made to the PACER architecture in preparation for the implementation of the next generation of the judiciary’s Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system. NextGen CM/ECF replaces the older CM/ECF system and provides improvements for users, including a single sign-on for PACER and NextGen CM/ECF. As a result of these architectural changes, the locally developed legacy case management systems in the five courts listed below are now incompatible with PACER; therefore, the judiciary is no longer able to provide electronic access to the closed cases on those systems. The dockets and documents in these cases can be obtained directly from the relevant court. All open cases, as well as any new filings, will continue to be available on PACER.

court cases removed FDsys coverage
U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit Cases filed prior to January 1, 2010 2010-
U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit

Cases filed prior to CM/ECF conversion 2005-
U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit

Cases filed prior to January 1, 2010 2010-
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

Cases filed prior to March 1, 2012 [none]
U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California

Cases filed prior to May 1, 2001 2005-

Please contact the court directly to obtain copies of documents and dockets in the above cases. Contact information for each court is available on the Court Locator page.

Press coverage:

Why GPO’s proposed policy to allow Regionals to discard is a bad idea

The discussion surrounding ALA’s Government Documents Round Table (GODORT) response to a recent Government Printing Office (GPO) proposal to allow Regional Depositories in the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) to discard some government documents has been intense and impassioned. In the interest of brevity on the GOVDOC-L listserv, I decided to post a longer piece in response here that will provide more context, explanation and rationale for my listserv response as well as my perspective on the proposal and its impact on the FDLP. I agree with the recommendation of the GODORT letter that the community should take 4 steps before instituting any Regional library e-substitution policy. This is my personal perspective and should not be seen as me speaking for GODORT or other FDLP libraries. A copy of the final version of the GODORT letter may be found at GODORT’s ALA Connect site. Because a login seems to be needed on that site, I’ve also posted a copy of the letter here on FGI.

Thanks to Barbie Selby for her clear articulation of the rationale for accepting the GPO proposal to allow Regionals to discard some of their paper holdings. I think Barbie and I agree on the larger goals of the FDLP (preservation of and free access to FDLP materials) almost completely. Where we disagree is whether the GPO proposal will actually accomplish those goals.

Unfortunately, the GPO proposal (as written) allows and, I would argue, even encourages actions that will predictably result in bad outcomes — outcomes that are the opposite of our shared goals. I believe that we need a policy that is designed to accomplish our shared goals.

But let me respond to the points raised in support of the GPO’s proposed rule change and try to explain why I think this policy is fatally flawed as written and why the GODORT letter is appropriate and reasonable and why its recommendations are necessary if we want to accomplish our shared goals.

1) Should we implement the policy as written because it is “very limited” in scope at this time? No, because we actually do not know how limited (or extensive) the initial phase is. GPO’s proposal is limited to those items in FDsys with a digital signature, but we actually do not know how many titles or volumes that includes. For example, FDsys includes a collection of Congressional Hearings from 1985 to 2014 and, presumably, any paper copy hearings that have digitally-signed versions in FDsys and are older than 2007 are eligible for immediate discard. Has anyone actually checked to see how many volumes that includes? Tens? Hundreds? Thousands? This is just one collection in FDsys and, by my count there are at least two dozen collections that have digital signatures. It is difficult to characterize even the initial scope of the policy as “very limited” when we do not have an official count from GPO of how many volumes are eligible for discard. (Although GODORT didn’t ask for it, we would all be better able to judge the extent of the initial impact of the proposal if GPO provided some quantitative estimate of how many volumes are within scope of the policy today.)

2) Regardless of how many volumes are eligible for discard today, we must realize that the policy is not limited in scope: it will allow more and more discards over time. Presumably it is the goal of GPO to include (and digitally sign) more documents in FDsys as resources permit. Presumably, this is also exactly what Regionals want; if the policy were truly limited to a small number of volumes it would not meet the expressed need of Regionals for more “flexibility.” The discard policy is not limited by design; rather, it is designed to be expansive and expanding. It would be illogical to accept a policy that is designed to expand because it is small at the start.

3) Although the proposal acknowledges that FDLP should retain a “requisite number” of tangible copies, it does not define what that requisite number is and does not provide a means of determining what it is or of determining how many copies we already have. Without the data, it will be impossible to implement such a requirement or know if it is succeeding — or failing. The GODORT letter simply recommends that, before implementing a Regional e-substitution policy, we should get the data and research necessary to accomplish this goal we all share. The alternative is to try to accomplish the goal in the dark — without either data or research — and such an approach could only accomplish our goal by accident.

There is research on how many paper copies libraries should keep when they rely on digital surrogates in order to discard paper copies; but the existing research does not map well to government documents. The existing research examines academic journals, a body of literature that is inherently homogenous and assumes that paper copies will only be needed for preservation and not ongoing access. That is very different from the very heterogeneous govdocs literature — which encompasses every conceivable kind of publication and will be needed for both preservation and access. So, we need research that focuses on the special nature of government documents. I agree with Barbie when she says that the actual number we need may vary from title to title and that there probably is no one “magic number;” that is, in fact, precisely what the research on academic journals suggests. But the GODORT letter does not recommend finding or using a magic number; it just proposes that we do the research and gather the data so that we can make informed decisions before we start discarding. Without that, our only option is to discard assuming that there is a magic number, and we know what it is, and that we have that number of copies somewhere within the FDLP. We know none of those things and discarding without knowing would be irresponsible.

4) Although it is possible that the policy could result in good outcomes and might accomplish our shared goals, there is nothing in the policy to suggest that it will do so. In fact, the policy only has one new goal, which it states explicitly: “To allow regional depository libraries the option to discard certain tangible materials.” How can we accomplish all the good outcomes we want for such a policy if the policy does not even acknowledge them? Let’s be clear: this policy is not about enhancing access or preservation; the materials covered by the policy are already in FDsys and available online. The policy only does one thing: it reduces the number of paper copies in the FDLP. The policy is not designed to benefit the FDLP system or users of government information; it is designed to benefit a specific subset of FDLP libraries. Their gain of shelf space will do nothing for any other library or any user of government information.

5) If my view is accurate, why do some librarians find the policy attractive? I think it is a very hopeful policy that is based on good faith. We are a hopeful community and a community with shared goals. Surely, none of us would intentionally do anything that would obviously harm the FDLP or long-term, free public access to government information.

I think that those who support GPO’s e-substitution proposal as written and oppose the recommendation of the GODORT letter are putting their faith in the ability of the community to implement the policy successfully. Barbie says, for example, that geographic distribution would be ensured (although there is no mention of this in the policy and inadequate data available to ensure it). She says that regional librarians do not want to weed drastically (but this seems contradicted by the vehemence with which they are pursuing “flexibility” to discard at their discretion) and that regionals will want to use options other than discarding (which they can already do without this new policy). I do not question Barbie’s intentions or goals, indeed, I agree with them! As we evaluate a bureaucratic policy that, if implemented, could outlive us all, we should look not at our hopes and faith, but at the facts of the policy. The fact is that this policy allows 47 Regional libraries to make irreversible decisions; once they discard, they cannot un-discard. And the fact is that the design of the policy does nothing to further our goals. In fact, it is designed in a way that will make it easier for the FDLP to lose geographic distribution, easier to have fewer copies than we need, and will actually remove incentives to do more collaboration among libraries by providing discarding as an alternative to collaborative retention.

One hopeful aspect of the policy itself is that it puts GPO in the position of being able to slow down discards of paper: the Superintendent of Documents must approve of discards. And it requires Regionals to offer a publication to the selectives in their region and then to other depository libraries nationwide. This provides us the hope that GPO or selectives or other Regionals will, when necessary, preserve copies that a Regional is discarding, but it does not provide the data or research or other tools for either GPO or FDLP libraries to know when that is necessary. (Indeed, if we had those tools, the Regional would not make the mistake of withdrawing a needed title in the first place!) These, then, are hopeful procedures, not guarantees and, without the data needed, any decisions made with these procedures will be made in the dark. I also wonder: Will the first to ask for permission to discard a particular volume be more likely to get permission, and will the last to ask be less likely to get permission? If so, won’t that actually lead to libraries racing to be first to discard? Won’t that fuel a discarding frenzy?

In short, the policy sounds good only if you accept the good intentions and hopefulness of the community. But when you look at the details, you are left with questions. Can Regionals or GPO make those good decisions without the necessary information? What if our well-intentioned actions have consequences that we cannot understand or foresee because we lack the information to understand their consequences? The GODORT letter simply suggests that we gather the information we need to make the right decisions so that we actually can achieve our shared goals.

Even if you disagree with the above analysis, I want to make two final observations for your consideration.

A) Although this policy is explicitly about discarding paper copies of documents, it is not (only) about paper vs. digital. If libraries want to digitize their documents to make them more accessible (and they should!), they can do so today (and they should!). They can do so under existing GPO policies. No, this policy is about libraries that want to shift their responsibilities of providing preservation of and access to government documents to GPO. This is not an unintended consequence or an unknown by-product of the policy; it is its explicit goal as stated in its first sentence. Is this a wise choice? One of the statements in the policy that I would classify as “hopeful” is the assertion that FDsys “guarantees permanent preservation and access.” Everything about this policy (and indeed the twenty-year shift of preservation and access responsibilities from FDLP libraries to GPO) hinges on this. If we wish to believe in that “guarantee” we should, as the GODORT letter suggests, first insist that GPO prove this to us by having FDsys go through an audit and get certification as a Trusted Digital Repository. But, even with such a certification, we must also recognize that, regardless of GPO’s current actions and intentions, GPO can only do what Congress authorizes and enables with funding. Further, we have seen repeated examples in the last few years of the problems (technical, political, budgetary, bureaucratic) of relying only on the government to preserve and provide consistent, reliable, free access to government information. When we choose to not preserve documents and not provide access to them, we are literally choosing to not provide any value for our users. When we choose to hope that the federal government will be able (and willing!) to provide preservation and free access to our users for the long-term, we are making a very risky decision. These are bad and risky choices. This policy effectively opens the door to expand the scope of these bad and risky choices from born-digital documents to the entire corpus of two hundred years of FDLP collections. What will our users gain by us doubling-down on a failing policy? By choosing to not provide value to them? By choosing to replace a safety net of dozens of libraries with a single-point-of-failure federal digital system?

B) Although I would like to be as hopeful and optimistic as Barbie is, it is hard for me to justify that optimism. I do believe that government information librarians, even with a bad policy and a lack of necessary information, would do their best to use this policy responsibly. But I am worried that there is a countervailing pressure on government information librarians. We have all seen it on govdocs-l and heard it at ALA and at DLC — even if we are not anxious to name it and acknowledge it for what it is. Even Barbie points out this pressure when she says, “I very much fear that if regionals are not given some flexibility, such as this modest [sic] step by GPO, we will see more libraries drop regional status altogether – which would not be good for any of us.” And there you have it. No matter what government information librarians may want or what their intentions are, we have the threat that, if GPO does not allow Regionals to discard their documents and pass off their preservation responsibilities to GPO, they will drop their regional status even if it is bad for FDLP, bad for preservation, bad for access, and bad for users. Won’t this pressure affect the decisions every Regional makes if this proposal is approved as written? And won’t that lead to decisions that are good for the individual library making the decision (more shelf space! less responsibility!) but bad for FDLP and users everywhere?

Finally, I want to end on an optimistic note. If government information librarians unite around our existing shared goals, we can come up with better policies than this and better strategies than turning our responsibilities over to GPO. But we will have to acknowledge more than the “reality of our institutions” (i.e., what is good for my library) and realize that the FDLP is about shared responsibility. We know this; Barbie expresses it well, too. But perhaps we have not been good enough advocates for the FDLP, our collections, or our many current and future users. Perhaps we have been too willing to give in to pressure and do what our library managers want — even if it is not the right thing to do. What can we do? We can and should leverage our shared goals and the vocal expression of support (even among library managers!) for government information and use that to develop strategies that will benefit not just our individual libraries in isolation but the infrastructure of FDLP (GPO and libraries together). We should advocate policies that benefit us all — collectively as well as individually. We can build an infrastructure of shared digital responsibilities that can support a robust 21st century digital depository system. We can start by gathering the data necessary to make good decisions. And we can also take on the responsibility of sharing preservation and access of born-digital information with GPO. If we had done these two things earlier, we would have had the data to make good decisions and the regionals would have already had this born-digital information in their repositories and this bad policy would not even be necessary!

Now *that* would be real progress!

FOIA Reform Support Needed Now! Contact your Senator

FOIA Are you a supporter of the [Freedom of Information Act] (FOIA)? Of course you are. Well, there’s a pretty solid FOIA bill introduced by Senators Leahy and Cornyn (S. 2520, the FOIA Improvement Act) coming out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill would create a presumption of access to government information, address some of the overuse of exemptions to FOIA, and strengthen several other areas of FOIA. Here is a section by-section explanation of the bill. The House has already passed a similar bill, H.R. 1211: FOIA Act.

Unfortunately, my Senator, Diane Feinstein, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is a possible obstacle. We are quickly running out of legislative days for the bill to be enacted during this session of Congress and we need Senator Feinstein’s support to make sure the Senate Judiciary Committee marks up the bill as soon as they return from the August recess.

If you’re in CA, please contact Senator Feinstein TODAY!! and ask her to support the bill.

And if you’re in a different state, contact your Senator and ask them to co-sponsor and support the bill too!

Thanks to OpenTheGovernment.org and the 50 other groups who are spearheading this effort and keeping the pressure up to pass this important legislation to make FOIA work better for the American public!

Earlier this year, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VIT) and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced S. 2520, the FOIA Improvement Act. The bill has generated a lot of enthusiasm in the open government community because it puts reins on agencies’ overuse of the exemption covering “pre-decisional material” by requiring that they weigh the public interest in the release of the record. The bill also strengthens the Office of Government Information Services, which was created in 2007 to help enforce the law and to help settle FOIA disputes out of court, and makes other common-sense changes to the way agencies process requests for records.

via FOIA Reform Support Needed Now! | OpenTheGovernment.org.

Where We Came From, State by State

ca-migration I declare this bulk data visualization day! NY Times Upshot blog today posted a cool visualization called Where We Came From, State by State. They charted how Americans have moved between states since 1900. The charts were compiled using Census microdata obtained from ipums.org at the University of Minnesota Population Center. Great state-by-state migration flows there. If they’d have asked me, I would have told them also about the free migration data available from the Internal Revenue Service. While the IRS data only goes back to 1990, it’s much more robust in that it gives county-by-county as well as state-to-state migration inflows and outflows. (By the way, do I need to remind our readers that none of this visualization would be able to be done without the US Census?!)

xkcd comic now with 100% more NOAA weather data!

Worst hurricane according to historic HURDAT and NCEP data

Randall Monroe’s xkcd comic has got to be one of my favorite comics on the ‘net. It’s smart, funny, quirky, and best of all, frequently data-driven and scientifically accurate! (I have both the Congress and money posters on my office wall!!)

Check out the latest comic as a good example xkcd: Worst Hurricane. The coolest part about this is that he used data from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center (quibbling but HURDAT database has been retired and replaced with HURDAT2) and from their National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP).