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June 2007

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


7th Circuit's Wiki Lets Practitioners Contribute

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals is engaged in an interesting experiment in democracy. The court posted its Practitioners Handbook to the web and opened it up for revision by members of the bar, no holds barred. Attorneys are encouraged to make comments, change information, add topics; in short, post whatever they think is important to know about practicing in the 7th Circuit.

“Our proposition is that everyone knows more than any one person,” says Chief Judge Frank H. Easterbrook. “As a group, the attorneys practicing before our court know more about appellate practice than any single person. With our wiki, we’re drawing on that wisdom.”

A wiki is a website that allows visitors to add, remove and edit content. To Easterbrook’s’ knowledge, this is the first wiki of its kind among the appellate courts. “We’re attempting to be part of the 21st Century,” he says modestly. And they’re doing a very good job of it. The 7th Circuit was the first federal circuit with a bulletin board that allowed users to exchange messages and read news over a phone line, one of the first to make audio of arguments available online, and the first to make same day RSS feeds of opinions and audio recordings of oral arguments available from its website.

Wikis are notorious for their wide-open, feel-free-to-contribute ethos. But the experiment isn’t completely without rules. Like all wikis, everyone is free to contribute content to the handbook on the 7th Circuit’s site—and everyone else is free to edit or criticize that content.

“By their nature, wikis are self-policing,” says Easterbrook. “An active community does our monitoring. A mistake made by one contributor can be corrected by another contributor within minutes.”

As a necessary precaution, the circuit asks users to register and provide a real e-mail address. A confirmation code is sent by the court to the user’s e-mail address and only by using the code can a user edit the website.

And if negative information is posted? “We are well aware that there are destructive as well as constructive people in the world,” says Easterbrook. “Some protection is provided by our community of users viewing the page often enough to catch mistakes. We also keep a log of any changes and who makes the changes. And, if all else fails, we’ve designated staff to monitor the page and revert to an old page if the changes are particularly damaging.”

Easterbrook is unfazed by the wide-open world of the wiki. “After all, wikis are easier to change than a law review article,” he says. And he hopes that other experiments that tap into the collective legal knowledge can be added to the website—perhaps someday a style and legal language guide. “A wiki allows people to start pages as well as edit them, so the field is open to additions,” he says. “But right now we’re just hoping to make life easier for the bar with a better handbook.”

The 7th Circuit’s wiki can be accessed at www.ca7.uscourts.gov/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page .