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August 2006

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Access As Easy As Tuning In

The next time you see someone pop on the headphones and get that faraway look in his or her eyes, don't be so sure it's a tune that's beguiling them. It just may be the latest oral arguments from the Seventh Circuit. The circuit is the first federal court of appeals to make RSS feeds of opinions and audio recordings of oral arguments available from its Web site (www.ca7.uscourts.gov/ca7_rss.htm).

The webpage helpfully explains that RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. "It works like a subscription," said Clerk of Court Gino Agnello, the man responsible for the circuit Web site's latest addition. Once a user subscribes to a particular topic (called an RSS feed), an RSS reader periodically polls servers to see if there are any new items of interest. If there are new items, the RSS reader notifies the user. The RSS reader can be a stand-alone program or an extension of a standard browser.

As the Seventh Circuit's Web site announces, "Now the content you want can be delivered directly to you without cluttering your inbox with e-mail messages." In this instance, the news is the circuit's latest oral arguments and opinions.

While most RSS news items reference text, the news items can also reference podcasts. A podcast is a recording of audio or video files that can be downloaded to an iPod or other portable MP3 player. The Seventh Circuit's Web site makes a combination of feeds available: an RSS feed of opinions to read on your computer, and RSS feeds of argu-ments as a standard audio MP3 podcast and an i-Tunes optimized audio podcast.

Over a decade ago, the Seventh Circuit was the first federal circuit with a bulletin board, a type of pre-Internet system that allowed users to exchange messages and read news over a phone line. The circuit was the first to require attorneys to submit briefs on floppy disks. They also were one of the first to make audio of arguments available online. With the addition of an RSS feed, audio of oral arguments is now available the same day, and the Seventh Circuit is again leading the way. The circuit also plans to add more "how to" information about rules and procedures to their Web site.

"I think having the briefs and arguments up on the Web makes for a much better-educated bar," said Circuit Executive Collins Fitzpatrick. "They can listen to arguments, and see what happens. They can be better prepared."

When compared to other circuits, the Seventh Circuit may be out front when it comes to the acces-sibility of opinions and arguments, but they are not alone. Most courts of appeals make audio files of oral arguments available to the public. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Federal Circuit make audio files of oral arguments available in MP3 format. The Ninth Circuit posts audio files of arguments on its Web site. (The Second and Ninth Circuits also permit camera coverage of their proceedings.) The D.C., First, Second, Fourth, and Sixth Circuits all provide audio files on a CD upon request.

Reaction to the Seventh Circuit's latest innovation is hard to judge; it was barely a week old when The Third Branch spoke with Agnello, but the goal was clear. "The RSS feed is aimed at the public and the bar," Agnello said. "We're just trying to make it easier for folks to get what they need."