Guest Post by: Rebecca Fordon, Faculty Services Librarian, Hugh & Hazel Darling Law Library at UCLA School of Law
Author note: Rebecca is a long-time volunteer for and collaborator with Free Law Project. This blog post presents her own personal views and assessments.
It’s been a productive few months for #freePACER advocates. In a ruling last month on PACER fees, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals gave advocates some hope that increased public access to PACER may someday become a reality, even if the ruling itself may have little immediate effect on pricing. And just this week, the House Judiciary debated this session’s free PACER bills. These bills would make online access to federal court records free to the public and improve the functionality, searchability and accessibility of the whole system.
But while advocates work for these large-scale changes, we’re still left with the current PACER, which is expensive and difficult to search. To mitigate the problem, there’s some important work happening behind the scenes that can improve the accessibility and searchability of PACER records today. Namely: RSS feeds, which provide daily updates on new cases and filings to anyone with an RSS reader. Many courts already have RSS feeds enabled, and there’s a movement afoot to encourage even more courts to turn on their feeds.
Today’s PACER System
The PACER system began as an offshoot of electronic court filing systems back in the early 2000s, and little has changed since then. On PACER, users find few of the search options they have come to expect from legal databases – you can’t even search docket text in a single docket (your blogger has spent many hours repeatedly clicking Ctrl-F through a long bankruptcy docket), let alone search docket entries across multiple dockets or conduct a full-text search of the documents themselves. For this limited access, users are charged what appears to be a fee, but adds up quickly – 10¢/page for documents and 10¢/“page” of information for dockets (both are capped at $3, although some other searches are not capped at all).
Legal publishers, non-profits, and other third-parties have stepped in to fill this void, building platforms to search their collections of PACER dockets and documents, either for free (RECAP, Justia) or for a monthly fee (Docket Alarm, Bloomberg Law, etc.). But experts estimate that purchasing all PACER documents would cost over $1 billion, putting such a full collection out of the reach of even the deepest pockets. So how do vendors get their documents?
The four most common sources vendors use are:
- Vendor purchase: Some vendors purchase some set of PACER documents themselves, and make them available to their users.
- Other users: Dockets or documents are purchased by the vendor’s users, and the vendor makes them available to all users.
- Free opinions: The courts mark some documents as “opinions,” making them available for no charge on PACER or from govinfo. The vendor scrapes these.
- RSS Feeds: Dockets and new case information are made available by a federal court through an RSS feed.
This blog post focuses on the fourth source – RSS feeds.
What is RSS and how do federal courts use it?
The acronym RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication,” and you might know it as the technology used to pipe blog content into your favorite RSS reader (RIP Google Reader). But at its most basic, an RSS feed is just a way to put updates of some kind in a machine-readable format (XML), which RSS readers process and present to you. The updates can take many forms ranging from blog posts, to tweets, to even, in the case of Podcasts, audio files.
Since 2011, all federal courts have had the option of providing RSS feeds. Through an RSS feed, a court can provide notifications of new filings in cases, including information such as the case caption, the case docket number, the type of filing (for example, the type of motion, or type of order), and the date of the filing. Courts have wide discretion in choosing whether to provide RSS access and in choosing the types of documents they want to make available.
These RSS feeds make third-party PACER search products more functional – without them, there would be no way to search dockets across cases, unless the dockets happened to have been purchased through one of the other methods mentioned above. And anyone can else access RSS feeds for free, making them a valuable tool in providing free access to legal information.
So, what’s *not* in RSS?
Although RSS feeds are hugely important, they still have significant limitations. First, RSS feeds do not give the same document description that appears on the docket (the description on the docket is typically the title provided by counsel who has submitted the document, or the description given by the clerk when entering a judge’s order). Instead, each docket entry is published to RSS with a generic document “type”, such as “Summary Judgment Motion” or “Order”. A second major limitation is that RSS feeds do not include the content of the documents themselves. Instead, they provide a link to the document, which a user can then purchase. For these reasons, a search of RSS-published dockets will never be as complete as a full-text search of all documents.
Finally, court adoption of RSS feeds is inconsistent. Today, nearly all bankruptcy courts and around 75% of district courts provide some form of RSS feed. But courts vary in the types of documents they provide via RSS feeds – only about 70% of bankruptcy courts and 50% of district courts provide full feeds. For example, some courts include orders but not motions; some courts include motions but not orders. Without full feeds for all courts, users get patchy results that they must then investigate, and can’t reliably get alerts for new filings unless they pay to access the docket every day (or have access to a vendor that does).
The Fight for Universal RSS Feeds – and a Victory?
Because of the problems with research using anything less than full RSS feeds, there has been a wave of recent activism to lobby the courts to provide full access. Free Law Project, and its executive director Michael Lissner, have led in these efforts, sending letters and making phone calls to dozens of federal courts, requesting that they provide full feeds. The call for RSS feeds was joined by other entities, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
As Free Law Project was waging its campaign, the PACER User Group (constituted by the judiciary to provide feedback on ways to improve PACER), was also addressing RSS feeds. In its very first meeting, in February 2020, the PACER User Group “requested that courts be strongly encouraged by the [Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts] to turn on the RSS feature and provide full docket entry/activity feeds.” Then, shortly after the PACER User Group’s recommendations were made public, the AOUSC stated (in a letter to the Free Law Project) that it would “be sending a survey . . . to identify and resolve specific implementation issues and to encourage courts to utilize this valuable public access tool.”
With the AOUSC throwing its weight behind RSS feeds – encouraging them and providing support in implementing them – we will hopefully soon see more consistent (and full) adoption of RSS feeds.
In the meantime, the fight continues. Just this week, a coalition of media organizations, advocates, law libraries and individuals joined Free Law Project in a letter to the Clerk of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, urging the court to fully enable RSS feeds.
 Aaron Swartz (who I know mainly for his fight against paywalls such as PACER and JSTOR) was one of the co-creators of RSS, at the age of 14. RSS Creator Aaron Swartz Dead at 26, Harvard Magazine, Jan. 14, 2013.
 As of January 6, 2013, 1 of the 13 circuits, 48 out of 94 district courts, and 80 out of 90 bankruptcy courts had RSS feeds enabled. https://web.archive.org/web/20120106055130/http://www.pacer.gov:80/psco/cgi-bin/links.pl. As of June 2020, 6 circuits, 71 district courts, and all 90 bankruptcy courts had RSS feeds enabled. The federal courts have since improved their website, and it’s no longer as easy to count RSS feeds, but Free Law Project keeps an updated list here: https://www.courtlistener.com/help/alerts/#coverage-gaps.