2017 – The Year to Free California’s Case Law “for Publication by Any Person”

I. Introduction
Alone among California’s branches of government, the state’s appellate courts remain stuck in a pattern of legal publication designed around books.  Other states now furnish unrestricted digital access to final, official, citable versions of their judicial precedent.  California does not.  The current “official reports” publication contract with LexisNexis runs until June 2017.  At that point the state’s judicial branch could do the same.  There are compelling reasons why it should.
II. The Constitutional, Statutory, and Contractual Framework
Every year California’s appellate courts hand down roughly one thousand decisions that count as legal precedent.  Those opinions, containing interpretations of constitutions (federal and state), statutes, and regulations, as well as rulings on points of uncodified law, are binding on the courts, governmental agencies, businesses, and citizens of the state.  To a degree true of no other state’s jurisprudence they also influence decisions of the nation’s other courts.
Recognizing the critical importance of public access to this


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Build Your Own Mini NES With a Raspberry Pi and This 3D Printed Case

Nintendo’s new Mini NES is a cool, tiny little Nintendo console that’s on its way in November, but you don’t have to wait that long to get one for yourself. With a 3D printed case and a Raspberry Pi, you can easily make your own.Read more…


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Lessons the Federal Courts Might Learn from Westlaw’s Prolonged Data Processing Error

The Thomson Reuters Errata Notice

On April 15, 2016 Thomson Reuters notified subscribers to its online and print case law services that a significant number of U.S. decisions it had published since November 2014 contained errors.

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Here and there words had been dropped.  The company explained that the errors had been introduced by software run on the electronic texts it collected from the authoring courts.  Thomson posted a list of the affected cases.  The initial list contained some 600 casesA week later it had grown to over 2,500 through the addition of cases loaded on Westlaw but not published in the National Reporter Service (NRS).  Two weeks out the list included links to corrected versions of the affected cases with the restored language highlighted.  The process of making the corrections led Thomson to revise the number of casualties downward (See the list’s entry for U.S. v. Ganias, for example.), but only slightly.

Thomson Reuters sought to minimize the importance of this event, asserting that none of the errors “changed the meaning of the law in the case.”  Commendably, Thomson apologized, acknowledging and detailing the errata.  It spun its handling of the processing error’s discovery as a demonstration of the company’s commitment to transparency.  On closer analysis the episode reveals major defects in the current system for disseminating federal case law (and the case law of those states that, like the lower federal courts, leave key elements of the process to Thomson Reuters).

Failure to View Case Law Publication as a Public Function

Neither the U.S. Courts of Appeals nor the U.S. District Courts have an “official publisher.”  No reporter’s office or similar public agency produces and stamps its seal on consistently formatted, final, citable versions of the judicial opinions rendered by those courts in the way the Reporter of Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court does for the nation’s highest court.  By default, cemented in by over a century of market dominance and professional practice, that job has fallen to a single commercial firm (originally the West Publishing Company, now by acquisition and merger Thomson Reuters) to gather and publish the decisions of those courts in canonical form.  Although that situation arose during the years in which print was the sole or principal medium of distribution, it has carried over into the digital era.  Failure of the federal judiciary to adopt and implement a system of non-proprietary, medium-neutral citation has allowed it to happen.

With varying degrees of effectiveness, individual court web sites do as they were mandated by Congress in the E-Government Act of 2002.  They provide electronic access to the court’s decisions as they are released.  The online decision files, spread across over one hundred sites, present opinion texts in a diversity of formats.  Crucially, all lack the citation data needed by any legal professional wishing to refer to a particular opinion or passage within it.  Nearly twenty years ago the American Bar Association called upon the nation’s courts to assume the task of assigning citations.  By now the judiciaries in close to one-third of the states have done so.  The federal courts have not.

Major Failings of the Federal Courts’ Existing Approach

Delivery of Decisions with PDF Pagination to Systems that Must Remove It

Several states, including a number that produce large volumes of appellate decisions, placed no cases on the Thomson Reuters errata list.  Conspicuous by their absence, for example, are decisions from the courts of California and New York.  The company’s identification of the software bug combined with inspection of the corrected documents explains why.  Wrote Thomson it all began with an “upgrade to our PDF conversion process.”

The lower federal courts, like those of many states, release their decisions to Thomson Reuters, other redistributors, and the public as PDF files.  The page breaks in these “slip opinion” PDFs have absolutely no enduring value.  Thomson (like Lexis, Bloomberg Law, Casemaker, FastCase, Google Scholar, Ravel Law, and the rest) must remove opinion texts from this electronic delivery package and pull together paragraphs and footnotes that straddle PDF pages.  All the words dropped by Thomson’s “PDF conversion process” were proximate to slip opinion page breaks.  Why are there no California and New York cases on list?  Those states release appellate decisions in less rigid document formats.  California decisions are available in Microsoft Word format as well as PDF.  The New York Law Reporting Bureau releases decisions in htmlSo does Oklahoma; no Oklahoma decisions appear on the Thomson errata list.

Failure to Employ One Consistent Format

The lower federal courts compound the PDF extraction challenge by employing no single consistent format.  Leaving individual judges of the ninety-four district courts to one side, the U.S. Courts of Appeals inflict a range of remarkable different styles on those commercial entities and non-profits that must process their decisions so that they will scroll and present text, footnotes, and interior divisions on the screens of computers, tablets, and phones with reasonable efficiency and consistency.  The Second Circuit’s format features double-spaced texts, numbered lines, and bifurcated footnotes; the Seventh Circuit’s has single-spaced lines, unnumbered, with very few footnotes (none in opinions by Judge Posner).

In contrast the decisions released by the Michigan Supreme Court, although embedded in PDF, reflect a cleanly consistent template.  The same is true of those coming from the supreme courts of Florida, Texas, and Wisconsin.  Decisions from these states do not appear on the Thomson list.

Lack of a Readily Accessible, Authenticated Archive of the Official Version

By its own account it took Thomson Reuters over a year to discover this data processing problem.  With human proofreaders it would not have taken so long.  Patently, they are no longer part of the company’s publication process.  Some of the omitted words would have been invisible to anyone or any software not performing a word-for-word comparison between the decision released by the court and the Westlaw/National Reporter Service version.  Dropping “So ordered” from the end of an opinion or the word “Plaintiff” prior to the party’s name at its beginning fall in this category.  However, the vast majority of the omissions rendered the affected sentence or sentences unintelligible.  At least one removed part of a web site URLOthers dropped citations.  In the case of a number of state courts, a reader perplexed by a commercial service’s version of a decision can readily retrieve an official copy of the opinion text from a public site and compare its language.  That is true, for example, in Illinois.  Anyone reading the 2015 Illinois Supreme Court decision in People v. Smith on Westlaw puzzled by the sentence “¶ 3 The defendant, Mickey D. Smith, was charged in a three-count indictment lawful justification and with intent to cause great bodily harm, shot White in the back with a handgun thereby causing his death.” could have pulled the original, official opinion from the judiciary web site simply by employing a Google search and the decision’s court attached citation (2015 IL 116572), scrolled directly to paragraph 3, and discovered the Westlaw error.  The same holds for the other six published Illinois decisions on the Thomson list.  Since New Mexico also posts final, official versions of its decisions outfitted with public domain citations, it, too, provides a straightforward way for users of Westlaw or any other commercial service to check the accuracy of dubious case data.

The growing digital repository of federal court decisions on the GPO’s FDsys site falls short of the standard set by these state examples.  To begin, it is seriously incomplete.  Over fifty of the entries on the Thomson Reuters list are decisions from the Southern District of New York, a court not yet included in FDsys.  Moreover, since the federal courts employ no system of court applied citation, there is no simple way to retrieve a specific decision from FDsys or to move directly to a puzzling passage within it.  With an unusual party name or docket number the FDsys search utility may prove effective but with a case name like “U.S. v. White” retrieval is a challenge.  A unique citation would make the process far less cumbersome.  However, since the lower federal courts rely on Thomson Reuters to attach enduring citations to their cases (in the form of volume and page numbers in its commercial publications) the texts flow into FDsys without them.

The Ripple of the Thomson Reuters Errors into Other Database Systems

Because the federal courts have allowed the citation data assigned by Thomson Reuters, including the location of interior page breaks, to remain the de facto citation standard for U.S. lawyers and judges, all other publishers are compelled in some degree to draw upon the National Reporter System.  They cannot simply work from the texts released by their deciding courts, but must, once a case has received Thomson editorial treatment and citation assignment, secure at least some of what Thomson has added.  That introduces both unnecessary expense and a second point of data vulnerability to case law dissemination.  Possible approaches range from: (a) extracting only the volume and pagination from the Thomson reports (print or electronic) and inserting that data in the version of the decision released by the court to (b) replacing the court’s original version with a full digital copy of the NRS version.  Whether the other publisher acquires the Thomson Reuters data in electronic form under license or by redigitizing the NRS print reports, the second approach will inevitably pick up errors injected by Thomson Reuters editors and software.  For that reason the recent episode illuminates how the various online research services assemble case data.

Services Unaffected by the Thomson Reuters Glitch

Lexis was not affected by the Thomson Reuters errors because it does not draw decision texts from the National Reporter System.  (That is not to say that Lexis is not capable of committing similar processing errors of its own.  See the first paragraph in the Lexis version of U.S. Ravensberg, 776 f.3d 587 (7th Cir. 2015).)   So that Lexis subscribers can cite opinions using the volume and page numbers assigned by Thomson, Lexis extracts them from the NRS reports and inserts them in the original text.  In other respects, however, it does not conform decision data to that found in Westlaw.  As explained elsewhere its approach is revealed in how the service treats cases that contain internal cross-references.  In the federal courts and other jurisdictions still using print-based citation, a dissenting judge referring to a portion of the majority opinion must use “slip opinion” pagination.  Later when published by Thomson Reuters these “ante at” references are converted by the company’s editors, software, or some combination of the two to the pagination of the volume in which the case appears.  Search recent U.S. Court of Appeals decision on Lexis on the phrase “ante at” and you will discover that in its system they remain in their original “slip opinion” form.  For a single example, compare Judge Garza’s dissenting opinion in In re Deepwater Horizon, 739 F.3d 790 (5th Cir. 2014) as it appears on Lexis with the version on Westlaw or in the pages of the Federal Reporter.

Bloomberg Law appears to draw more extensively on the NRS version of a decision.  Its version of the Garza dissent in In re Deepwater Horizon expresses the cross references in Federal Reporter pagination.  However, like Lexis it does not replace the original “slip opinions” with the versions appearing in the pages of the Federal Reporter.  Examination of a sample of the cases Thomson Reuters has identified as flawed finds that Bloomberg Law, like Lexis, has the dropped language.  Casemaker does as well.

Services that Copy Directly from Thomson’s Reports, Errors and All

In contrast, Fastcase, Google Scholar, and Ravel Law all appear to replace “slip opinions” with digitized texts drawn from the National Reporter System.  As a consequence when Thomson Reuters drops words or makes other changes in an original opinion text so do they.  The Westlaw errors are still to be found in the case data of these other services.

Might FDsys Provide a Solution?

fdsys

Since 2011 decisions from a growing number of federal courts have been collected, authenticated, and digitally stored in their original format as part of the GPO’s FDsys program.  As noted earlier that data gathering is still seriously incomplete.  Furthermore, the GPO role is currently limited to authenticating decision files and adding a very modest set of metadata.  Adding decision identifiers designed to facilitate retrieval of individual cases, ideally designations consistent with emerging norms of medium-neutral citation, would be an enormously useful extension of that role.  So would be the assignment of paragraph numbers throughout decision texts, but regrettably that task properly belongs at the source.  It is time for the Judicial Conference of the United States to revisit vendor and medium neutral citation.


Original URL: http://citeblog.access-to-law.com/?p=598

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New Mexico’s Mandate That Medium-Neutral Citations Be Used for Cases Originally Issued without Them

New Mexico’s Unique Citation Rule

Since August 1, 2013 briefs, memoranda, and other papers filed with New Mexico’s courts have been required to use a system of medium-neutral case citation for all New Mexico appellate decisions. That citation system, similar although not identical to the model recommended by the American Bar Association and American Association of Law Libraries, was first implemented by the New Mexico Supreme Court in 1996. Pierce v. State, released for publication on January 4th of that year, was designated “1996-NMSC-001″. The first decision of the state’s court of appeals in 1996, State v. Gutierrez, carried the citation “1996-NMCA-001″. Both were issued with numbered paragraphs. Simultaneously issued citation rules required filings in New Mexico courts to cite those decisions and subsequent ones using their medium-neutral citations.

What is unprecedented about the 2013 amendment to those rules is that it requires that New Mexico’s print-independent citation system be used for all pre-1996 decisions reaching back to 1852. No other state has taken this step. Shortly after Oklahoma implemented medium-neutral citation in 1997, it retrofitted all prior reported decisions. But that state’s citation rule, then and now, simply provides that parallel citations employing the print-independent scheme are “strongly encouraged for opinions promulgated prior to May 1, 1997“.

Some Background

The New Mexico Compilation Commission began as an agency responsible for producing a full compilation of the state’s statutes, hence its name. In 1982, however, the commission was  given additional responsibility — publication of the New Mexico Reports. In 2004 it was declared to be the state’s official legal publisher. In 2011 the commission ended print publication of the New Mexico Reports, and the state’s supreme court designated the authenticated electronic files of decisions at the Compilation Commission web site their final, official version.  And in 2012 the Commission’s database of electronic decision files, each with a medium-neutral designation  (e.g., “1982-NMCA-051″) and paragraph numbering, was extended all the way back to Bray v. United States, 1852-NMSC-001.

Today, the Compilation Commission offers legal professionals and state offices the compiled statutes of New Mexico in both print and electronic format.  Combined with the state’s case law, court rules, decisions of the regional federal courts, and other material, the commission’s integrated DVD and online database serve state and local government offices and compete with the commercial research services in the legal information market.  Because of an attractive subscription price (roughly $60 a month for the general public, less for state and local government agencies), official status, and a growing list of features (most recently a limited citator service for its case reports) these services, known as NMONESOURCE, do, in fact, offer serious competition.

The principal drawback of the Compilation Commission’s database for legal professionals is its tight focus on New Mexico.  With some frequency the state’s judges and lawyers need access to federal case law, statutes, and regulations.  On occasion, they must consult decisions from other states.  Although the Compilation Commission’s electronic library includes a collection of the most useful federal decisions and serves as a portal, linking to Google Scholar for the case law of other states and U.S. government sites for the Federal Register and Code of Federal Regulations, it falls short of providing a full range of non-New Mexico primary legal material.  At a minimum the users of NMONESOURCE must, from time to time, turn to some other research service.   Convenience may lead them to stay or even start out elsewhere.  The default “other service” for New Mexico’s lawyers is Fastcase, available as a membership service to all members of the bar.   For the state’s judges it is Westlaw, to which all of them, from the district courts  through the state supreme court, have access under a group Westlaw subscription.

Consequences to Date

Compliance by Judges, Lawyers, and Law Students

Current decisions of the appellate courts of New Mexico model the citation format the 2013 rule requires of lawyers.  While that rule does not require parallel print-based citations for state decisions dated after the cutoff for the final volume of the New Mexico Reports, judges continue to include parallel references to the Pacific Reporter of the Thomson Reuters National Reporter System.   As the rule directs, however, their pinpoint references employ the paragraph numbers of the medium-neutral format.  Review of a small sample of briefs filed in recent New Mexico appeals leaves little doubt that the system has also taken hold among lawyers.  Student editors of the New Mexico Law Review employ the new citation method in their writing.

Take Up by Major Law Databases

To comply with the 2013 citation rule, the judge, lawyer, or law student needs access to a database that has retrofitted its collection of New Mexico’s pre-1996 decisions with medium-neutral case identifiers and paragraph numbers.  A database search on “contract breach” may lead a researcher to the 1959 decision of the New Mexico Supreme Court in Wolf v. Perry or the 1993 case, Mark V, Inc. v. Mellekas.  When first published and for years thereafter the volume and page numbers of those two decisions in the New Mexico Reports and Pacific Reporter would have provided proper citations.  Indeed, they had none other.  But as of August 1, 2013, Wolf v. Perry is to be cited as “1959-NMSC-044″; Mark V, Inc., as “1993-NMSC-001″.  While a search on Bloomberg Law, Google Scholar, or Fastcase will take you to those cases, none of those services yet delivers their neutral citations, let alone the paragraph numbering needed to direct a reader to a specific passage.

Does this place the subscription service offered by the New Mexico Compilation Commission in a unique competitive position?  No.  The same search conducted on LexisNexis or Westlaw reveals that those services have followed the commission’s lead and added neutral cites and paragraph numbers to all pre-1996 New Mexico cases.  Other research services serious about the New Mexico market will, no doubt, do the same.  No license from the state is required.  Despite the copyright notices that appear throughout the Compilation Commission site, New Mexico could not and does not claim copyright in either the case citations or paragraph numbers.

In the meantime, researchers who wish to cite pre-1996 cases identified through use of a database that has not inserted the new citation parameters can obtain them, case-by-case, from open access resources offered by the Compilation Commission.  The commission’s web site holds tables that allow one to convert any pre-2013 official cite (“65 N.M. 457″ or “114 N.M. 778″, say) to the new system (“1959-NMSC-004″ and “1993-NMSC-001″, respectively).  The site also provides, as a free public resource, a comprehensive case law collection reformatted in accordance with the new standard.  From it one can draw the paragraph numbers the new rule calls for in pinpoint cites.  Furthermore, because the commission’s site is open to external search engines it is possible to bypass the lookup tables and go straight to the decision one wants to cite.  A Google search on “114 N.M. 778″ or “845 P.2d 1232″ limited to the commission’s site will lead directly to the medium-neutral version of Mark V, Inc. v. Mellekas as well as recent cases citing that decision.  In fact, because the site is open to external search engines the initial case research need not begin elsewhere.

Lack of Reinforcement in NMSA and Most Other Annotations

As the state’s official publisher the New Mexico Compilation Commission also publishes the New Mexico Statutes Annotated and the New Mexico Rules Annotated.  Both are included in electronic form as components of its online and disc products.  They are also sold in print.  In neither have annotations to pre-1996 decisions yet been conformed to the new rule.  An annotation’s reference to a 1994 case will still cite it as  “In re Cutter, 118 N.M. 152, 879 P.2d 784 (1994)” rather than “In re Cutter, 1994-NMSC-086, 118 N.M. 152″.  So long as a researcher is working from the DVD or online version the annotation’s obsolete format is not a problem for the cites are linked to copies of the opinions, which carry the now official neutral citations and paragraph numbers.  On the other hand, since programmatic conversion of the old-form citations should be fairly straightforward there is reason to expect that it will occur before long.

The annotations that appear in Michie’s Annotated Statutes of New Mexico, as published online by LexisNexis, do contain cites that conform to the new rule.  Those in West’s New Mexico Statutes Annotated and in the Fastcase annotations to the New Mexico Statutes, as yet, do not.

Effects Limited to New Mexico

Many decisions of the U.S. District Court for New Mexico do employ the state’s medium-neutral citation scheme when citing its courts’ post-1996 decisions.  Not all do, however, and there is little evidence to date that federal judges will be induced to cite older New Mexico decisions in accordance with the 2013 rule.  When decisions from New Mexico, contemporary or older, are cited in other states, even states with their own systems of neutral citation, they are, almost invariably, cited by volume and page number.

A Model for Other States?

Oklahoma is the only other state to apply a non-proprietary medium-neutral citation scheme retrospectively to its full body of case law.  There, nearly two decades of “strong encouragement” to use the system in citing older decisions has had a pervasive effect on in-state citation practice.  In Oklahoma, like New Mexico, the policy was undergirded by creation of a comprehensive database of state law open to judges, other public officials, lawyers, and members of the general public — an initiative explicitly aimed at loosening dependence on commercial systems.

The barriers inhibiting prospective adoption of any new citation approach are sufficiently daunting and the costs of creating the necessary supporting database large enough that all other states adopting medium-neutral schemes have been content to leave their print-era case law wrapped in print-era citations.  Two of them, Arkansas and North Dakota, have done so despite having created public databases of earlier appellate decisions.  So long as the boundary between old and new is distinct this seems a totally defensible approach.  How a Illinois judge or lawyer should cite decisions of that state’s courts rests very clearly on when the decisions were filed.  Those released prior to July 1, 2011 and published in the Illinois Official Reports must be cited by volume and page number.  Decisions filed on or after July 1, 2011 with a “public-domain citation” must be cited using it.

What reasons might have led New Mexico to take a more radical approach to citation reform?  The first is that it could.  Without a full retrospective case law collection the publications and legal research services of the New Mexico Compilation Commission were seriously incomplete, including importantly its flagship New Mexico Statutes Annotated.  Assuming that construction of such a comprehensive digital archive had to be undertaken, the attachment of non-print-based citations in the same format as those that judges and lawyers had used for post-1996 cases may have seemed a modest add-on.  Moreover, the rule change could be seen as placing NMONESOURCE, the Compilation Commission’s subscription service, in a uniquely authoritative position.  Set up as an “enterprise unit” funded out sales and subscription revenue along with a dedicated portion of court filing fees, the commission was in need of a resource boost.  As the annual report of the New Mexico judiciary for fiscal year 2013 noted:

The challenges facing the [commission] are the increases in publishing costs while revenue declined for the second year in a row. There is a significant loss in civil action filing fees due to the decrease in civil actions filed. There is strained subscription revenue stemming from the economy overall and the increase in self-represented litigants who elect to file civil actions and appear in court without legal counsel. Lawyers are forced to make difficult decisions to postpone subscribing to the official laws in favor of the limited, unannotated laws on the public access site.

However, since that same public access site provides a complete set of New Mexico decisions as well as look-up tables matching volume and page number cites with their medium-neutral equivalents and the leading commercial database services have rapidly incorporated the new cites, the 2013 rule change may not, in the end, have a significant effect on NMONESOURCE subscription revenue.

No other U.S. jurisdiction has an agency with the broad charge and challenging duties of New Mexico’s Compilation Commission or today has the initiative, incentive, or resources within the judiciary to create a database like the one Oklahoma established years ago.  For that reason it seems unlikely that the path New Mexico and Oklahoma have blazed will be followed by others anytime soon.

 


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