Hiding in plain sight: the problem with federal court data

Last week a federal judge in Northern California ruled that four major technology companies would pay more than 64,000 current and former employees $415 million dollars . Who are these tech giants, you ask? You’d never know from the limited amount of data the federal court system provides free of charge:


As shown above, what PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) does provide is the title of the docket, in this case, “In re: High-Tech Employee Antitrust Litigation,” the jurisdiction, e.g. Northern California District Court, terse docket entry titles and dates, and a few other scraps of metadata. The names of the plaintiffs or defendants, logical terms anyone would naturally use to search for this important court case, may or may not be included.

Sqoop wants to change that. Yesterday afternoon we filed an application with the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge for funding to apply our search technology to the docket information representing the case. As you can see from the full PACER docket report for this case, there is considerably more information we could include in our database against which reporters conduct searches. Just to see this docket, we had to pay $3.00. If we wanted to download any of the associated documents in the case, we would have to pay an additional 10 cents per page up to a maximum of $3.00 per document. As this long running case has accumulated 1,113 docket entries, at an average size of 6 pages/document within PACER, it would cost approximately $668 to obtain the primary entry documents alone. This doesn’t include attached exhibits to these documents. These costs represent an unreasonable barrier to access this public information, not to mention treatment that is different from other public data sites which are, as the name implies: public.

Access to at least the complete docket summary would allow us to index and present much more detailed information to journalists in federal court records search and Docket Watch alerts.

Frankly, we’d like funding to make journalist access to all court records completely free and unencumbered, but this is a start.