RSS Feeds, PACER, and the Fight for Access to Federal Docket Information

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).[1]  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.[2]  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.[3]  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.


[1] 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.

[2] Susan M. Thurston, Clerk Commentary: Exciting New Features Coming Later This Year with CM/ECF Release Version 4.1, ABI Journal, May 2011, at 24, 63.

[3] 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.

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Is there still a Weekend?

If you’re like me, you have lost all conception of time and space. At the beginning of the pandemic (which still feels in many ways like only last month…) I followed all the advice to maintain a schedule to keep projects on task and keep my work product moving along. Since then, I have done a very good job of getting my tasks done, filling the needs of my research class, and keeping up with ongoing projects. But when it comes to the schedule: that fell away in about one month; or was it one hour?

Part of the problem is that I have three young children at home. While my wife works at home taking care of our children, it is impossible (and inpractical) for me to separate my work-life from home-life while working from home. Children cry, spouses get frustrated, kids work parents off of each other, and just other things come up at home that I would otherwise not be privy to: for instance who knew kids changed their clothes 10x a day and leave every article on the floor? I have written in the past about my children and their distracting ways, but these distractions are unpredictable and not conveniently timed (hense why they are distractions). Because of that, I can either keep my set schedule or refuse to ignore my children, but I can’t do both.

To that end, my time has become an amorophus blob in which I find odd times to do the work that needs to get done. I will be sure to sign in every morning at 7:30am and log out sometime around 4:00pm, but in the middle, there is nothing but uncertainty. Most days I have been able to work the entire time; others I am forced to go away from my computer for minutes to hours at a time. When this happens, I make up the time in other ways: working later in the day, working through lunches other days, or (most commonly) working during the weekends.

From my conversations with many of you, I doubt this comes as a shock: in fact I think many of us went the first couple months of working from home without a substantial weekend. On the one hand, this is certainly not ideal since we all need to find time to take a break. But on the other hand, even leisure time is fundamentally different. In the past, this time of year is one of looking forward to birthdays and holiday celebrations, and while there will be those in some form, they will not be the huge time committments they were in the past. Even a simple act of getting together with friends is off the table for most of us. So while I believe we all must make sure we take breaks, there is actually more time to take breaks with the health conscious need to social distance, and the simple fact that we no longer need to commute as much.

All this is to say (and this should come as no surpise) that things are fundamentally different now. I stopped thinking a long time ago about my days and weeks as work time and home time: it is almost impossible to do that when they are literally the same place. Instead what I have tried focusing on is the using this time at home to the fullest advantage. This means I’ll take time to talk and read with my children, an opportunity I would not have had a year ago during the day. Not being able to go anywhere on a Friday night or weekend, means I can use that time to work instead of forcing myself to work on Wednesday afternoon when I’m tired and distracted. Instead I can go out and have a conversation with my wife now, so she can watch a show I have no interest in later while I’m working. It was of course easy to schedule and plan before; but since things are so uncertain, I have found it is best to not try to draw bright lines between work and home, and to instead go with the flow. However, when it comes to working out, that is something I simply do not have any time for 😦

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Questions with Puron: Featured RIPS Member – Sarah Mauldin

Compiled By: Emma Wood


Sarah Mauldin, Law Librarian, Dekalb County Law Library in Decatur, GA.

Questions with Puron is back!  This social media series was launched by the RIPS PR & Recruitment Committee to highlight the diverse views and professional strategies of the constituents of Research Instruction and Patron Services Special Interest Section (RIPS-SIS). Twice per month, our beloved penguin mascot poses a series of questions to one of the many librarians who make up RIPS. First up this month, Puron talked with Sarah Mauldin, Law Librarian, Dekalb County Law Library in Decatur, GA.


Puron: Favorite #AALL2020 session? Or a cool recent webinar?

I recently moderated a webinar for GLL-SIS, Reopening Is Hard To Do, on the challenges law libraries face in reopening and providing services to patrons during the time of Covid-19. We had a virologist and an epidemiologist talk about the science of the virus as well as the public health implications. A recording is available on AALL2Go at https://www.aallnet.org/recording/reopening-is-hard-to-do/  for anyone who wants to hear what Dr. Kowalik and Dr. Walsh have to say.

Puron: What’s a recent photo you took that makes you smile?

One of the fun things about my new long walk habit is taking photos of little things along the way that bring me a little joy. This copper Sasquatch is just one of the many pieces of yard statuary I’ve seen along the way in the past few months.

Puron: What is your favorite podcast?  

Coronavirus has led to me taking long walks and long walks have necessitated finding new podcasts to enjoy. My new favorite is No Such Thing As A Fish, in which researchers for the British comedy quiz show QI talk about their favorite facts from their recent research and hilarity ensues.

Puron: What do you love about being a law librarian?  

I love hunting down the answers to people’s odd questions. I started my career in a law firm and have since moved to a county law library so the kinds of questions have changed but the thrill of the hunt remains. An added bonus of moving to a public facing role is getting to see that sometimes the help I provide really does change someone’s life.

We hope you enjoyed getting to know Sarah. If you would like to hear from more members, join the conversation on our Twitter RIPS-SIS (@RIPS_SIS) or connect with us on Facebook facebook.com/PuronRIPS/. The PR & Recruitment Committee will also be reaching out to select members for participation in this series. If you would like to be featured, or want to recommend someone, please email Emma Wood at emma.wood@umassd.edu.

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There’s No Business Like Show Business?

Engineer: “Saturday morning radio address, take 21.”

Donna Moss: “I have a really good feeling about this one, sir.”

President Josiah Bartlet: “Is this still my first term?”

Remember March?  Me either.

But I do have a vague recollection of the need to make more videos.  In particular, I recall a RIPS discussion board thread about short videos. Commenters said, “I wish I had mini-lecture videos” and “(r)ecorded mini-lectures would […] be helpful for the students.”  

What caught my eye was a librarian saying it took her approximately five hours to do a ten-minute video, and that she had underestimated how long producing the video would take.  To some extent that mirrored my experience.  I’ve definitely endured a lot of trial and error.

Now that it’s allegedly September, let me offer some thoughts on video production (and I use “production” loosely).

What’s been my most indispensable technology?  Definitely Adobe Premiere Pro.  Is it expensive?  Yes.  Our university has a license agreement for the Adobe Creative Cloud, so in my case the cost was not a prohibitive number. 

On the Twittersphere, I’ve observed some law faculty who caution against using Premiere Pro because of the learning curve.  Indeed, Premiere Pro could cause you a lot of pain if you’re unwilling to invest time learning how to use it because it’s definitely not an intuitive program. I wasn’t even an Adobe novice and yet I suffered some woe.  Despite having substantial experience with Audition and its predecessor, Cool Edit Pro, I initially was confused by the Premiere Pro interface.  My take, though, is that it’s usually easy to find a YouTube how-to video that gives you step-by-step instructions on what you want to accomplish with Premiere Pro.

One beauty of Premiere Pro is its ability to mask moments that might prompt one to consider a retake.  For one, whenever I’m sitting alone and press “record,”  whether I’m going to remember my lines becomes an exercise akin to Guildenstern flipping a coin.  Thankfully, if there’s a tiny error and the rest of the recording is fine, it’s relatively simple to use Adobe Audition to edit the audio. With Premiere Pro, I can then add the fixed audio to the video.  In another instance, I recorded a satisfactory take and later realized I had my bookmark toolbar visible.  Since I didn’t want my toolbar clutter to be visible and re-recording might have prompted a meltdown, I was able to add the good audio to video from a separate take.  This post-production task was easy. In other words, by investing time watching Premiere Pro tutorials, I’ve ultimately saved time as well as portions of my sanity, and I’ve produced better videos.    

If, however, you want to stick with free tools or a less intimidating editor, I recommend checking out Make a Production Out of It, one of the pre-recorded AALL conference sessions. Joseph Lawson offers a helpful tutorial on Microsoft’s free video editor and also demonstrates the advantage a higher-end editor like Camtasia has over the preinstalled option.     

One last video tip (and I almost hesitate to state this because it might be too obvious): if you’re recording a segment where your desktop isn’t needed for a demo, in all likelihood your camera phone will deliver higher-quality video than your webcam.  Using your phone also gives you the option to go mobile and record in a location where your webcam isn’t accessible. 

Above: 4:3 video captured by laptop’s webcam
Above: 16:9 video captured by LG G5

Sure, if you use Super Panavision 70 your students aren’t necessarily going to become more skilled researchers than the students watching VHS-quality videos.  I get that. AALL doesn’t give awards for cinematography and you don’t need 4K videos to bolster your pedagogical toolkit.  But I see value in students’ viewing experiences not being exclusively a web browser and grainy video. If we need to make videos, why not do it better and add a personal touch.

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Let’s Make Room for Kindness in Research and Instruction

       During my first semester of teaching, a colleague and I were having a conversation in which I noted the importance of kindness to my teaching philosophy and pedagogy. Their response? “I don’t really think kindness is a part of teaching.” At the time, I shrugged it off as a difference of opinion, but after adequate reflection, and given all that’s happening in the world, I find it important to note that values like kindness and compassion are fundamentally connected to teaching and learning, and to further assert that we should absolutely seek to incorporate such values in training law students to become effective—and ethical—lawyers.

       More recently, I asked two former educators: “Can and/or should kindness be a part of teaching?” The first response? “Absolutely!” The second? “Of course! That’s not a question.” Okay, so I’m not crazy. We went on to discuss how values like kindness and compassion set an important and positive tone for the entire learning experience, serve as an avenue to trust, and allow students the comfort and safety to take risks and ultimately learn better.

       But what do experts say? Well, according to neuroscientist and educator Dr. Judy Willis, neuro-imaging and brain-mapping research supports a relationship between teaching strategies that incorporate values like kindness, which decrease the negative impact of stress and anxiety and promote positive motivation and engagement, and an outcome in which students gain emotional resilience and learn both more efficiently and at higher levels of cognition.

       Of course, scholarly discussion on the role of such values as related to teaching is not new. But a brief look at some of the existing scholarship reveals that much of the conversation has taken place outside of the US. While UK authors, in texts like The Pedagogy of Compassion at the Heart of Higher Education more comprehensively examine care-centric approaches to instruction, deeming them “central to the experience of learning,” US scholars appear less convinced, or at least less concerned.

       Loosely related and an interesting trend to note is the growth of academic institutes dedicated to the study of kindness, compassion, and other similar values. In recent years, a number of top institutions in the US have begun to establish centers aimed at evaluating the benefits and widespread applicability of such values to higher education and other areas of society. Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, for instance, was established within its Department of Neurosurgery “with the explicit goal of promoting, supporting, and conducting rigorous scientific studies of compassion and altruistic behavior.” Just last year, UCLA opened the Bedari Kindness Institute, which is housed in its Social Sciences Division and “dedicated to the research, education, and practice of kindness, with the goal of empowering citizens and leaders to invest in building more humane societies.”

       And indeed, there have been some US scholars speaking more specifically to the inclusion of such values in pedagogical approaches to higher education. Cate Denial is one such example, and in a recent podcast, she encourages us to think about the connection between an online pedagogy of kindness and Universal Design for Learning principles. (Her book on “A Pedagogy of Kindness” is forthcoming!)

       Naturally, COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have also worked to push the conversation forward. While perhaps the idea that kindness is not an inherent part of instruction was shared pre-COVID, as evidenced below, educators throughout the world have been more apt to advocate for the adoption of empathy-focused pedagogies in recent months.

       The truth is that kindness should be connected to everything we do, including teaching. How can we possibly expect to foster education and social progress without being kind? The world is evolving, and I submit that kindness is essential to the right kind of change. So let’s stop viewing kindness as merely incidental to research and instruction and start making room for it in our philosophies and pedagogies. Let’s make room for it in our virtual classrooms, at the virtual reference desk, and everywhere else in our personal and professional lives as we seek to create positive, necessary change.

Teach For America on Twitter: ""Educating the mind without educating the  heart is no education at all." - Aristotle http://t.co/UXK3BUYKq5"

References

Brandy Bagar-Fraley, Offering Compassion and Care in Online Courses, Faculty Focus (May 8, 2020), https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/offering-compassion-and-care-in-online-courses/.

Catherine Denial, A Pedagogy of Kindness, Hybrid Pedagogy (Aug. 15, 2019), https://hybridpedagogy.org/pedagogy-of-kindness/.

Compassion in Education, https://compassioninhe.wordpress.com/ (last visited Sept. 8, 2020).

Erin Rentschler, Engaging Students beyond the Traditional Classroom Part II: Pedagogies of Presence, Kindness, and Care, The Flourishing Academic (June 4, 2020), https://flourishingacademic.wordpress.com/2020/06/04/engaging-students-beyond-the-traditional-classroom-part-ii-pedagogies-of-presence-kindness-and-care/.

Frances A. Maratos, Paul Gilbert & Theo Gilbert, Improving Well-Being in Higher Education: Adopting a Compassionate Approach, in Values of the University in a Time of Uncertainty 261-78 (Paul Gibbs, Jill Jameson & Alex Elwick eds., 2019).

Jane E. Dutton & Monica C. Worline, Educators, It’s Time to Put on Your Compassion Hats, Harvard Business Publishing (Apr. 2, 2020), https://hbsp.harvard.edu/inspiring-minds/educators-its-time-to-put-on-your-compassion-hats?itemFindingMethod=Editorial.

Judy Willis, The Neuroscience Behind Stress and Learning, Edutopia (July 18, 2014), https://www.edutopia.org/blog/neuroscience-behind-stress-and-learning-judy-willis.

Karen J. Head, Let’s Add Compassion to Our Online Curriculum, The Chronicle of Higher Education (Mar. 31, 2020), https://www.chronicle.com/article/lets-add-compassion-to-our-online-curriculum/.

Raquel Wright-Mair, A Work of Heart: Practicing Critical Compassionate Pedagogy in the Face of Adversity​, Diverse Issues in Higher Education (July 17, 2020),  https://diverseeducation.com/article/184482/.

Sakinah Alhadad, Chantelle Warren, Ruth Bridgstock, Jude Williams & Mandy Lupton, Prioritising Care and Compassion in Learning and Teaching During the COVID-19 Crisis, Griffith University Blog (Apr. 7, 2020), https://blogs.griffith.edu.au/learning-futures/prioritising-care-and-compassion-in-learning-and-teaching-during-the-covid-19-crisis/.

Simon Robinson, The Pedagogy of Compassion at the Heart of Higher Education, 9 J. Glob. Resp. 130-34 (2018) (book review).

Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, http://ccare.stanford.edu/ (last visited Sept. 8, 2020).

Sue Clegg & Stephen Rowland, Kindness in Pedagogical Practice and Academic Life, 31 Brit. J. Socio. Educ. 719-35 (2010).

The Pedagogy of Compassion at the Heart of Higher Education (Paul Gibbs ed., 2017).

ThinkUDL Podcast, An Online Pedagogy of Kindness with Cate Denial (July 21, 2020), https://thinkudl.org/episodes/an-online-pedagogy-of-kindness-with-cate-denial.

UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, https://kindness.ucla.edu/ (last visited Sept. 8, 2020).

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