Software Developer Lobbies For Free Court Documents
by Reed Albergotti
A few years ago, software developer Stephen Schultze helped create a nifty piece of code called “RECAP” that makes some federal court documents free on the Internet.
This week, Schultze spent time lobbying Congress to make his own invention completely unnecessary. He is proposing a one-page bill that would make all federal court documents free to the public. “My dream is to make RECAP obsolete,” he told Law Blog.
All federal district court documents are available for purchase on pacer.gov, which stands for Public Access to Court Electronic Records.
More than $120 million was spent last year by lawyers and others searching on PACER, according to Charles Hall, a public affairs specialist in the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington, D.C. PACER is run by the U.S. Courts. Mr. Hall said that 95% of all PACER fees come from just 5% of users – mostly law firms and legal research companies like LexisNexis and Westlaw. Academic researchers, pro bono lawyers and indigent users can be eligible for fee exemptions, he said.
Schultze describes himself as a crusader seeking to public records free. RECAP was developed in part by Aaron Swartz, an Internet activist who killed himself about three months before he was to face a range of felony charges. (On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice said it plans to brief a congressional committee on its handling of the Swartz prosecution.)
To address the PACER fees, Schultze and a couple of Princeton graduate students invented a software plugin for the Firefox web browser called RECAP (PACER spelled backward) and launched it in 2009. When people who have installed the plugin make purchases on pacer.gov, the documents are automatically uploaded to RECAP’s database, become searchable and free.
The federal court system hasn’t exactly embraced Schultze’s invention. When RECAP first launched, a notice on the PACER web site urged people not to use it.
Schulze says he first wants to help make federal court records freely available and then turn to state court documents. “My feeling is that the federal courts could lead by example,” he says.