Category Archives: Public Information

CRS Reports Now Available to the Public

By Eric Taylor, Evening & Weekend Reference Librarian

Once the exclusive province of Congress, the CRS Reports are now available to everyone.  Thoroughly researched and produced by the Congressional Research Service, the CRS Reports are nonpartisan briefing papers about current and emerging affairs of interest to members of Congress and their staffs.

The core mission of the Congressional Research Service, a legislative branch agency, is to provide “timely, objective, and authoritative research and analysis to committees and Members of both the House and Senate.”  Their reports support “Congress in its legislative, oversight, and representational duties.”  The wide range of topic areas for which CRS Reports have been produced include: constitutional questions, foreign affairs, agriculture and economic policy, science and technology, intelligence and national security, health care, education, immigration, transportation, and many others.

The year was 1914 when Senator Robert La Follette Sr. and Representative John M. Nelson, both of Wisconsin, championed a provision in the appropriations act establishing a special reference unit within the Library of Congress.  The new reference unit was based on Progressive Era ideas which promoted “the importance of the acquisition of knowledge for an informed and independent legislature.”  The Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library, established in 1901, was built on the same concept that informed knowledge could serve the best interests of the state.

At various times in its history, reports such as the Public Affairs Bulletins (in the late 1940s) and Congressional Research Service Review (1980s) were made available to the public, but until very recently the vast majority of reports produced by the Congressional Research Service were available only to Congress.  The public, researchers, and advocates alike have long asked for these reports be made freely available.  The passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 last March did just that by directing the Library of Congress to make CRS Reports publicly available online.

“The publication directive specifically mandates that the public website is to be “updated contemporaneously, automatically, and electronically, to include each new or updated CRS report released on or after” the date on which the Library makes the website available for public access.”  The complete inventory of CRS Reports will be made available sometime in 2019.

Just click on the “Search” button to see what is available now.

CourtListener Now Offering PACER Docket Alerts

By Eric Taylor, Reference Librarian

The Free Law Project recently announced the availability of PACER Docket Alerts on CourtListener.com.  CourtListener is a free public access website tracking federal and state courts.  The Docket Alert tool will send you an email anytime there is a new court filing in a case you are following in PACER.  Access to PACER documents is provided by the website’s RECAP function.  Clicking on the RECAP Archive link allows users to search for available PACER filings.

Setting up Docket Alerts using CourtListener is simple (quoting the Free Law Project’s press release):

“The best way to get started with Docket Alerts is to just make one. Try loading a popular case like U.S. v. Manafort or The District of Columbia v. Trump. Once the case is open, just press the “Get Alerts” button near the top. Then, just wait for your first alert.”

Give it a try.  I did with U.S. v. Manafort and the Docket Alerts started flowing in the very first day the alert was set, and they just keep coming.

The primary source powering these alerts is RSS data provided by PACER websites.  However, not all courts have RSS feeds yet.  So another very important source is the docket information contributed by RECAP users.  Attorneys and others who download documents from the PACER system using their paid accounts can participate by installing the RECAP Extension to then upload these same documents to CourtListener’s RECAP Archive.  To date, 37M PACER docket entries have been uploaded to the RECAP Archive which includes 6.5M searchable PDFs.  The RECAP Archive continues to grow with the addition of over 100,000 docket entries and 2000 PDFs every day.

The value of CourtListener goes well beyond RECAP and PACER.  CourtListener also provides a free searchable archive of over 4M court opinions with more being added by the day.  They also have one of the largest collections of oral arguments available on the Internet.  Their coverage page breaks down the figures and services in greater detail.

There really is no other legal website like it.  As the courts continue to charge the public fees for access to PACER, the Free Law Project practices what they call PACER Advocacy to bring these documents out into the light for the world to see for free.

Access to free PACER Docket Alerts is not unlimited, however.  Any user can monitor five dockets for free.  Those who install the RECAP Extension will get an additional ten docket alerts.  Users who make monthly contributions to the Free Law Project can make as many alerts as they need (within a reasonable limit).  The current suggested minimum monthly donation is five dollars per month.

 

News on the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau

A recent article from Madison’s local newspaper, The Isthmus, outlines some significant cuts to the staff and services of the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, particularly in the LRB research and library services department.

For example, the article cites a reduction in the number of “plain language” reviews of laws or court cases from 27 in 2014 to 11 last year. The number of reports produced by the LRB has also fallen in recent years from 22 in 2014, 16 in 2015, 5 in 2016, 1 in 2017, and none so far in 2018.

See the article for more information about the cuts as well as a bit of history of the LRB in Wisconsin.

WI Legislature Recently Introduced Two Bills Related to CCAP

CCAP, or the Consolidated Court Automation Program, is the Wisconsin electronic circuit court case management system. Recently, several bills were introduced in the Wisconsin legislature regarding CCAP.

 

Both of these bills, Assembly Bill 723 and Senate Bill 612, list what categories of information should be provided and searchable on CCAP, including:

 

  • County where charges were filed
  • Judge assigned to the case
  • All cases adjudicated by the judge
  • The criminal charge filed
  • Whether the case resulted in a conviction
  • The penalty that was imposed, if any, in the case

 

This is certainly something we’ll be keeping our eyes on in the near future!

Arrest Data Analysis Tool Available from Bureau of Justice Statistics

Established in 1949, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) is the United States’ primary source for criminal justice statistics. BJS publishes many reports such as the seminal Crime in the United States as well as several data analysis tools. The Arrest Data Analysis Tool, for example, allows users to generate tables and graphs of national arrest data from 1980 onward. The results can be customized either by age and sex or by age group and race for more than 25 offenses.

Users can also view data on local arrests because the arrest data is compiled from the reporting of individual law enforcement agencies. The FBI has collected arrest counts for several decades now through its Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program which forms the backbone of the underlying statistics. Over 18,000 city, university/college, county, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies voluntarily participate in the program covering about 80% of the U.S resident population. The output from this dynamic tool can be downloaded to Excel format.

This User’s Guide will help you get started.

This post was authored by Eric Taylor, Evening Reference Librarian at the UW Law Library

The Free Law Project’s CourtListener.com Contains Every Free PACER Opinion

The Free Law Project has recently announced that in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Labor and Georgia State University, they have collected every free written order and opinion that is currently available in PACER.

New opinions will be downloaded every night (!) to keep the collection up-to-date.

Currently, the collection contains about 3.4 million orders and opinions from cases dating back to 1960. All of the documents are available for search, and the Free Law Project has also partnered with the Internet Archive to upload a copy of every opinion as well (the Internet Archive is a non-profit whose mission is to permanently store digital content).

Read more about this exciting new initiative here.

CourtListener Frees the Law

The following blog post was written by Eric Taylor, Evening Reference Librarian at the University of Wisconsin Law School Library

CourtListener is a powerful new free legal research website sponsored by the non-profit Free Law Project.  The Court Listener platform is composed of four searchable databases containing judicial opinions, an audio collection of oral arguments, judge profiles, and documents from the Federal PACER system.  The repository’s numbers are impressive and growing daily.

  • Almost 4 million legal opinions from federal and state courts.
  • Real-time coverage of oral arguments from SCOTUS and 11 of the 13 Federal Judicial Circuits.
  • A database of over 8500 judge profiles.
  • 2.4 million plus PACER documents.

The search engine is easy to use and offers an “Advanced Search” option to refine searches in a number of ways including citation, judge, and docket number.  Case law searches are powered by their CiteGeist Relevancy Engine to provide the most relevant and important cases at the top of the results.  CourtListener downloads opinions from many jurisdictions on an ongoing basis thereby allowing users to set up alerts using customized search and citation feeds.  RSS feeds may also be set up by jurisdiction.

The oral arguments database is also continually updated, making it the biggest such collection on the Internet.  At present, CourtListener provides oral arguments to over 1500 cases originating from the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  A count of available oral arguments from SCOTUS and 11 of the 13 Federal Judicial Circuits totals over 19,000.  The judge profile search now also links up to the oral arguments database meaning when you look up the profile page for a judge, you may see a list of oral argument recordings for cases that judge has heard.

What really makes CourtListener special is the free access to PACER documents it provides through the RECAP Archive.  Users of the PACER system can contribute to the building of the archive by downloading the RECAP Extensions for Firefox and Chrome.  As you browse PACER, the RECAP extension automatically uploads docket files and PACER-downloaded PDFs to the Internet Archive for others to download later.  The net effect is kind of like paying it forward, allowing the documents (and legal benefits) to flow to everyone.  This newfound access to PACER documents is truly groundbreaking.

CourtListener joins a growing list of other free legal research sites as Google Scholar, FindLaw, Justia, Ravel Law, and Casetext.  You owe it to yourself to take the newest of these for a test drive.  CourtListener rightly joins the UW Law Library’s list of free legal resources available on our Databases and Electronic Resources page.

Making case law accessible to all

There have been some very exciting advances in the fight to make court documents more freely accessible to everyone. As many legal researchers and law librarians are aware, many legal materials can be relatively rare or sheltered behind a paywall. Movements are afoot to change this, at least in part, and there has been progress over the past several months.

Harvard’s Case Law Access Project, which involves scanning scanning in Harvard’s entire collection of case law books, recently scanned it’s last volume. That may sound blase, but that means that nearly 44,000 volumes with roughly 40 million pages of case law have been digitized. This case law will be made freely available to anyone who needs to review it.

In addition to finishing their scanning, Harvard also recommended providing bulk digital data of future case law to make it easier to add to the currently scanned collection.  The director of Cornell’s LII and a Professor of Law from Indiana University also testified on behalf of the continued digitally accessible case law.

Lastly, and potentially most exciting, was the announcement by the Internet Archive of their desire to store PACER records from Federal Courts and make them freely available.  While it remains to be seen if this proposal will come to fruition, it is another indication of legal material becoming more easily available to anybody. For now, many PACER documents can be found via RECAP, a free website that is co-run by the Internet Archive and Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy.

As you search for case law and other legal materials, imagine how that process may become easier as it all migrates to the open web!

New Site Aims to Make Every CRS Report Publicly Available Online

If you’ve ever tried looking for a CRS Report, you know that they can be very difficult to track down.  A new site called everyCRSreport.com is hoping to make them more publicly accessible online.

Currently the site includes 8,260 CRS reports, although that number will change regularly.  It’s unclear what date range is covered by the site, although it does say that “if you’re looking for older reports, our good friends at CRSReports.com may have them.”

[update 10/27: Per @danielschuman at Demand Progress “the @EveryCRSReport website has all the reports currently available to congress. They can go back to the 90s, but not usually.”]

If you’re not familiar with CRS Reports, they are reports issued by the Congressional Research Service which is a legislative branch agency housed inside the Library of Congress.  These reports contain analytical, non-partisan information on topics of interest to members of Congress. 

Although the reports are works of the United States Government and not subject to copyright protection, the federal government has, thus far, not made them publicly available.  Numerous non profits and commercial vendors have been working to fill the gap.

According to the website, EveryCRSReport.com is a project of Demand Progress in collaboration with the Congressional Data Coalition — a bipartisan coalition founded by Demand Progress and the R Street Institute to promote open legislative information.

End of Term 2016 U.S. Government Web Archive

A collaborative group of librarians from the Library of Congress, U.S. Government Publishing Office, Internet Archive, and several other archives and universities have teamed up on a project to preserve public United States Government websites at the end of the current presidential administration ending January 20, 2017.

In this collaboration, the partners will structure and execute a comprehensive harvest of the Federal Government .gov domain.  But they need your help.  The project team is calling upon government information specialists, including librarians, political and social science researchers, and academics – to assist in the selection and prioritization of the selected web sites to be included in the collection.

Simply submit urls of your favorite or any interesting, live .gov website other federal government websites, or governmental social media account with the End of Term Nomination Tool.

For more information, see this post from the Library of Congress.