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November 2011

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


Pilot Adds 30,000 Opinions

Federal Digital System- America's Authentic Government Information

More than 30,000 court opinions are now accessible to the public, free, through a pilot project the federal courts are conducting with the Government Printing Office and its Federal Digital System (FDsys).

The opinions are from six of the dozen federal courts selected for the pilot: the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, the U.S. District Courts for the District of Rhode Island, the District of Kansas, the District of Idaho, and the U.S. Bankruptcy Courts for the Southern District of Florida and the Southern District of New York. When all the original pilot courts are brought on line, it is anticipated over 90,000 opinions will be available to the public through the FDsys website.

Adding opinions from the remaining pilot courts is a process of manually configuring the existing Case Management/Electronic Case Files System at each court to pull opinions nightly and send them to GPO, where they are received, processed and posted. GPO authenticates each posted opinion.

When all the original pilot courts are brought on line, it is anticipated over 90,000 opinions will be available to the public through the FDsys website.

On the FDsys website, the collection is divided into appellate, district, and bankruptcy court opinions. Opinions are text-searchable across opinions and across courts. Once an opinion is located, all associated opinions within the same case can be accessed. Posted court opinions date as far back as April 2004, although not all collections are complete.

The opinions on FDsys may differ in a notable way from opinions available on most online legal research services—FDsys permits embedded animation and audio that works while the opinion is accessed. Only opinions on a court’s own website, on PACER, and on FDsys allow this innovation. (See box)

Since the pilot’s approval in 2010, many additional courts have expressed interest in the pilot. Their participation would add to the pilot’s data without cost to the Judiciary, so in 2011, the Judicial Conference approved an expansion of the pilot to include up to 30 more courts. The courts will be contacted in early 2012 and begin the implementation process to configure their Case Management/Electronic Case Files System software.

An Opinion–with Sound and Action

In one of the district court opinions now posted to the Federal Digital System, visitors have an opportunity to see a unique presentation of evidence and testimony given in a trial conducted by Judge William Smith in the District of Rhode Island. The opinion contains both audio and animation.

“Words were just inadequate,” said Smith, “to explain a complex cryptographic hashing algorithm,” a function that can be used for digital signatures or passwords. Smith took animation developed by a trial witness and married it to the trial audio. Then, instead of including a link—which might be lost over time—he embedded the “movie” in the opinion.

As a precedent, Smith looked to the Supreme Court opinion in Scott v. Harris in which a hyperlink to video evidence—film from a police cruiser showing a chain of events in a high speed chase—was included. “They let the film speak for itself,” said Smith.

In the case of Smith’s 2009 opinion, the audio/animation was not enough to convince the Court of Appeals, and his decision was overturned, but he believes the approach is sound.

“In my view, with the advent of new technology that assists in the electronic presentation of evidence, and with digital audio recordings, we will slowly evolve to the point where opinions combine media and different forms of content,” said Smith. “Many judges now read opinions on tablet devices capable of handling multimedia. But it may be attorneys who lead the way. There’s a new generation of attorneys who see the opportunities in using this technology in their advocacy.”