PACER Officials Give Weak, Nonsensical Excuse For Why PACER Deleted Tons Of Public Court Records With No Notice

from the total-failure dept

We were among the first to report that the federal court system's PACER electronic database of court records had deleted a ton of old cases, and once our story went live, we saw a ton of lawyers, law professors and journalists flip out over the news, which had been hidden in a little-read notice on the PACER site, posted with basically no notice at all. The Washington Post got the Administrative Office of the US Courts to provide a statement about the deletions that makes almost no sense at all.
Charles Hall, a spokesperson for the Administrative Office, told The Post via e-mail that the change was made on Aug. 11 in preparation for an overhaul of the the PACER architecture, including the implementation of the next generation of the Judiciary's Case Management and Electronic Case Files System. "NextGen replaces the older CM/ECF system and provides improvements for users, including a single sign-on for PACER and NextGen," he wrote.

However, as a result of the changes the locally developed legacy case management systems of some courts were no longer compatible with PACER, he says. Since PACER works as a sort of distributed network of different archives rather than one centralized database, that's a major problem.

However, Hall says, the dockets and documents no longer available through the system could still be obtained directly from the relevant court and "all open cases, as well as any new filings, will continue to be available on PACER."
Yes, I can understand how there might be some backwards compatibility problems, but it seems like there's a pretty straightforward way to deal with that: move the old files to the new system. But no one seems to be doing that. The claim that it's okay because the documents are available "directly from the relevant court" is a ridiculous, weak excuse. The whole point of PACER was to make the records more accessible and to get away from having the documents only available to people who have the time and resources to go down to the local court to get the documents.

The Washington Post also spoke to Brian Carver from UC Berkeley's School of Information, who recently took over the management of RECAP (the crowd-sourced effort that many of us rely on and contribute to) to post any documents obtained via PACER to the freely available web via the Internet Archive. He made a pretty good point, that it's absolutely ridiculous that no one at the courts made this information public earlier so that people could try to do something to preserve the availability of those case records:
Carver says their group would be happy to host the files publicly, and are reaching out the courts to see if that is possible. But he was still shocked by the lack of advance warning. "If we had known about it in advance maybe we could have done something to target these documents and archive them publicly," he says. "It was really an announcement of an accomplished feat -- we weren't told until after this deed was already done."
Meanwhile, Aaron Greenspan, who runs another site that makes court documents publicly available, PlainSite, (and who first alerted us to this issue), has sent the Administrative Office of the US Courts a response to this, pointing out, as we mentioned above, how ridiculous it is:
The supposed explanation that the dockets and documents were stored in an "incompatible" format is nonsensical and has no technical justification whatsoever. As you well know, database schema changes happen all the time, and it is easily within the realm of possibility to write conversion scripts—especially given how much money the AO has spent on PACER NextGen already. In fact, the technology known as ODBC exists for this very reason.
He further has offered to "reverse-engineer the supposedly legacy format(s) ourselves and make the data available to the public for free at no cost to the Government" and even asked them to ship the hard drives to him. Somehow, I doubt that's going to happen, but it seems like working with Carver or Greenspan or anyone else, frankly, would have made more sense than just deleting these public records.

Update: And... Carl Malamud of Public.Resource.Org has sent letters to all of the courts that had cases deleted, requesting copies of the deleted cases. We'll see how that goes.

While it's great that PACER is apparently moving to a new system (the login page is already different, though the underlying pages still remain horrifyingly painful to use), dumping a bunch of cases down the memory hole is a huge problem.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    Gumnos (profile), Aug 27th, 2014 @ 1:03pm

    If only someone had scraped down a historical archive…

    …and not gotten arrested for it and then been driven to suicide.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Rekrul, Aug 27th, 2014 @ 1:40pm

    Game review site The Adrenaline Vault claimed something similar when they revamped the site several years ago. All the old reviews were deleted because the maintainers claimed that they weren't compatible with the new system.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    DannyB (profile), Aug 27th, 2014 @ 1:41pm

    Imagine this paranoid lunitic raving

    Suppose someone discovered some earlier binding court precedent. Something horrible. Something so horrible that it cannot be allowed to stand! Something so terrible, I hesitate to mention it, but for example: a precedent that protects free speech or free expression, or protects people's constitutional rights, or even worse, a court precedent that frightens the RIAA or MPAA!

    How would you 'disappear' such a horrible thing in plain view?

    First, make it disappear from PACER, clouded by a large number of deleted documents. Now people have to physically go to the court to inspect documents. So make the original document disappear. Since there are no other records to compare to, the 'disappeared' document cannot be detected.

    Remember: Snowden shold teach us that the actual state of things is worse than paranoid crazy ravings.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2014 @ 2:15pm

    I wonder if incompatible format is another word for deleted-by-accident. My guess is a high up official had a little more privileged to the system then he/she needed and deleted the files. Then knowing how well government agencies backup their data, it was too hard to retrieve.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2014 @ 2:27pm

    Re: Imagine this paranoid lunitic raving

    I'd argue that this is the reality, rather than being some rabid conspiracy theory. The only difference is the who; that most likely being the Department of Justice.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    FamilyManFirst (profile), Aug 27th, 2014 @ 2:30pm

    Perhaps this will be a good thing

    If RECAP winds up with a more-comprehensive database than PACER, PACER will gradually (or rapidly?) be abandoned in favor of RECAP. Competition in action ...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), Aug 27th, 2014 @ 7:02pm

    Incompatible format

    "Incompatible format" is shorthand for, "We just don't want to do it." Yes, it would take work, but it's only worth it if you consider the documents important. I've been part of a number of conversions for other systems, and it's not unusual for a decision to be made to abandon the junk in the old system.

    But just who is it here that considers those documents unimportant, and why? Is it PACER development? No, they're an "employee", not the "owner" of the documents.

    So it's the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, which manages the system, that made this decision.

    Perhaps I could understand these being ruled unimportant if it were just the local court cases; the number of people who would need those is low-per-document, giving a low return for storage; and the local court is supposed to have copies.

    But Appeals Court decisions?

    It sounds to me like the Administrative Office of the United States Courts decided, due to stupidity or deliberate malfeasance, to eradicate Appeals Court case law. I hope it's not malfeasance, because that would be really scary.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    DannyB (profile), Aug 28th, 2014 @ 6:01am

    Re: Re: Imagine this paranoid lunitic raving

    If such a thing truly happened, you've got to remember the mentality of book burners.

    They are not bright. They probably don't understand the intarwebs. And it might not occur to them in their haste that other copies of the dreaded books might exist.

    Yeah, the DoJ might fit the description.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), Aug 28th, 2014 @ 3:20pm

    Update: And... Carl Malamud of Public.Resource.Org has sent letters to all of the courts that had cases deleted, requesting copies of the deleted cases. We'll see how that goes.

    Hmm. If an Executive agency doesn't respond to a lawful records request, you take them to court, as has been documented multiple times here on Techdirt. But what do you do if a court doesn't respond?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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