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Public Outreach – Annual Report 2017

Federal judges and court staff conducted a variety of public outreach efforts with the goal of bringing greater understanding of the role of the Judiciary in American democracy.

Building Public Understanding of the Courts

Public understanding of the role the Third Branch plays in our democracy is vital to the Judiciary’s independence. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) conducted several civic and outreach programs in 2017 and helped courts develop local programs. New interactive programs were added to the Judiciary’s public website for courts to adapt for local courtroom or classroom events. Other initiatives in 2017 included court camps, teachers' institutes, and adult education programs. The AO also coordinated with federal courts around the country to celebrate Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. Courts invited student groups to 50 naturalization ceremonies conducted by federal judges throughout September. Students of all ages attended these “living civics lessons,” where they recited letters and poems they wrote to newly naturalized citizens, sang the national anthem, or led the Pledge of Allegiance.

Teacher Institute

Teachers from every state participated in an annual teachers institute in a federal courtroom in Washington, DC.

Using Social Media to Share Judiciary News and Information

In September 2017, the U.S. Courts Twitter feed – @uscourts – marked its first anniversary and by the end of the year had nearly 3,000 followers, including state and federal courts, legal professionals, and members of the media, who shared the tweets on their social media networks. The Judiciary uses Twitter to share news, caseload data, civics education programs, and Judiciary history with a broad public audience. The AO has also provided advice and guidance to courts and probation offices interested in using Twitter, Facebook, and other tools as part of their public communications strategies.

Moments in History and Pathways to the Bench

The AO launched a new video series called Moments in History about the cases and people that have shaped the nation and the courts. It includes a video about Thurgood Marshall told through the eyes of his law clerks, and one about the landmark battle between the Wright Brothers and a rival aviator over a patent for their “heavier than air dynamic flying machine.” The series also tells the story of Judge Jack Weinstein, of the Eastern District of New York, and his pioneering work in mass tort litigation, beginning with the pivotal Agent Orange case brought by Vietnam War-era veterans.

In the ongoing Pathways to the Bench video series, federal judges talk about the challenges in their lives that prepared them to serve on the bench. In a video produced in 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Juan R. Sánchez, of Philadelphia, talked about his career journey beginning at the age of 12, when his family moved from Puerto Rico to New York City and he learned to adapt to a new culture by working hard and leveraging his talent and passion for baseball.

New Interactive Database of Judiciary Trends

An enhanced database that houses information about civil and criminal federal cases dating to 1970 was made available in 2017 to researchers and the public on the Federal Judicial Center’s (FJC) website as part of a partnership with the AO. The interactive database contains docket information from appellate, district, and bankruptcy court filings and terminations, including plaintiff and defendant names, filing date, termination date, disposition of the case, type of lawsuit, jurisdiction, and docket number. It excludes judges’ names as a preventative measure against judge-shopping by plaintiffs. 

Use of the database is free and allows for multi-year data analyses. Data can be downloaded in annual and multi-year batches, or users can select their target cases using the database’s interactive feature. Earlier versions of the database were frequently used by academic researchers studying workload trends in the federal Judiciary. For example, it’s been used in the past to examine how plea bargaining and charging outcomes have changed over time in response to changes in sentencing laws. The database is also useful as a “shopping list” for the Public Access to Electronic Records database, the federal Judiciary’s online service that makes judicial opinions, motions, pleadings, and other actual records of cases available to the public. Using the database on the FJC’s site in conjunction with PACER can help users zero in on the types of records sought, saving unnecessary document downloads.

Improved PACER Search Tool

Upgrades to the PACER Case Locator (PCL) in 2017 simplified the search process for federal cases and refined features that help users narrow their search results. The PCL is a search tool for PACER, an online public access service that allows users to obtain case and docket information from federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts. The database contains more than 51 million court cases and 310 million party records, which date to the 1950s. Each day, more than 50,000 users access the PCL. The upgrades allow them to save preferred cases and searches. The PCL also provides both simplified and advanced search screens, and makes it possible to perform searches on mobile devices.