Judicial self-publishing

Thanks to Robert Richards and the Legal Informatics Blog for the heads up on the subject of this post.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is quietly doing something astonishing. It has started to provide a service that at first blush you might think citizens in a democractic society should deserve or expect. But the outreach is indeed remarkable because the behavior is yet an outlier, an exception to the norm.

CircuitMap_01Timeout for some background on the importance of this Court. It is the body which hears the appeals of federal trial judges (who work in what are known as "federal district courts") throught the west coast of the United States, and further inland. The map pictured is from the Ninth Circuit's website and shows the extent of the Ninth Circuit's territory, or "jurisdiction." If a party in a lawsuit doesn't like the decision of the Ninth Circuit, they are out of luck, unless - and this is very hard to do, harder even than getting funded by a VC - she or he (or it) can convince the US Supreme Court to get involved.

What this important federal appeals court is doing is this: it is self-publishing its decisions; petitions of parties in cases at issue; the legal briefs by which parties present their arguments; and letters and other documents filed with the court, related to the legal appeals which the court is deciding. In short, the court is self-publishing the work of the court on the court's own website.

What's more, the service appears tuned to the consumption and reference habits of the most obviously immediate audience for the daylighted materials: litigators. Lawyers who focus on litigation, for whatever reasons, seem to like to use tablet readers. So, according to a press release, the materials that the Ninth Circuit publishes will be optimized for tablet readers, even at the expense of oversized renderings on desktops and laptops. 

(Aside: I heard an author on NPR this morning remark on how reading has now come full circle. The era of the bound book had a great long run, but now we are back to tablets and scrolling!) (Aside to that aside: while conceding the trend, this reader is comfortably returning to bound books, and this lawyer is re-embracing big-ass, heavy laptops and desktops with multiple monitors.)

A pet frustration of mine, a cherished peeve, is how, in the free information age, lawyers, even young ones out of school, still seem captured by for-profit legal publishing vendors who gatekeep legal information, including but not limited to court opinions. Laws and judicial opinions are, in fact, increasingly available on the open web, but lawyers and law firms still pay to access them!

The Ninth Circuit is acting as though the baseline assumption should be re-set. And they are investing resources to do so, by attempting to eliminate a feature that private publishing services use as a competitive differentiation to open sourced legal materials. Listen to the argument below from the Court's press release. (The "West" referred to is a publishing company to which the court previously outsourced the production of opinions.)

"A more important change involves the addition of case summaries prepared by court staff. The summaries save time by allowing readers to quickly get the gist of a decision without having to search through the opinion itself. West previously produced the summaries, but for copyright reasons they could not be included with opinions made available online."

Bravo Ninth Circuit!

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