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Enhancing Public Access to Legal Data

Using a $600,000 grant, the Oyez Project will digitize legal materials of State Supreme and Federal Appellate Courts.

by / July 18, 2013
flickr/Phil Roeder

In a few years, simplified case summaries, judicial opinions and audio recordings from all federal appellate and state supreme courts could be accessible at the touch of a button.

The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law will spearhead the effort, aggregating documents and media from courts in California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas. The information will be reformatted and republished online following open practice standards.

Once the project is complete, content will be more accessible to non-legal audiences, including journalists and the general public. The remainder of state supreme and federal appellate courts in the U.S. will receive a similar treatment over the next five years provided additional funding is raised. The audio recordings and digital content will be available through individual websites for each court and a mobile app.

Helping to fund the work is a  $600,000 prize that the  Oyez Project received   as a winner of the Knight News Challenge on Open Gov, sponsored by the Knight Foundation. The foundation works to promote media innovation by funding innovative ideas in news and information. 

The Oyez Project previously digitized U.S. Supreme Court documents from as far back as 1955, including an audio archive containing approximately 14,000 hours of court deliberation spanning roughly 6 million words.

Leading the new project is Jerry Goldman, Oyez Project director and a professor with the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. Goldman felt tackling the written and audio content of all the nation’s appellate courts would make covering the courts easier for journalists, and give the public a better understanding of judges and legal decisions.

“They are men and women with values and judgments, and sometimes they make good calls -- and I bet they make a few bad ones too,” Goldman said. “I think we have a duty as citizens to understand what they do, rather than say … ‘that’s someone of Polish decent and my family came from Poland so I am going to cast my vote for her.’ That really is what I want to overcome by improving ease of access to the work of the courts.”

First Steps

The project will require a great deal of teamwork between the Oyez Project and volunteers. The grant funding will enable Goldman to create a consortium of local partners from law schools to provide plain English case summaries, abstracts and biographical sketches of federal appellate and state Supreme Court judges. The Oyez Project team will build the both the websites and the mobile application for both iOS and Android devices for access to the content.

A prototype model of what the website will look like is already online, containing data from The Washington State Supreme Court. That site was built using WordPress, but the new project will operate using Drupal as a content management system.

Matt Gruhn, associate director of the Oyez Project, explained that users will see individual websites for each court. But “under the hood,” all the data will live in the same digital repository, enabling advanced querying of data across multiple jurisdictions.

In the next few months, the Oyez Project will reach out to law schools to gauge their interest in being part of the new project. Goldman said he hopes to get a couple of schools interested, which in turn should snowball into more wanting to be involved as the effort will get them noticed by the state judiciary.

In addition, the archival work could help enhance a law school’s brand and reputation to help drive prospective student and professor interest in attending or teaching at the institution.

“It’s another way for a law school to distinguish itself from its competitors,” Goldman said. “It’s hard for me to see the downside here, especially since we’re doing all the hard work.”

Challenges Ahead

When working on the U.S. Supreme Court project, the major challenge for Goldman and his team over the last 20 years was going back 58 years to collect audio recordings in different states of decay from the National Archives and transferring it. Many of those same research and aggregation steps will exist with the federal appellate and state supreme courts, but the work will focus largely on material from current years, so it won’t take as long.

A number of hurdles still exist, however. Many courts use obsolete word processing software to archive transcripts, making cataloging and transferring to one standardized format difficult. In some cases, the courts have transcribed their own audio and identified the speakers, making the process easier. But that’s a best case scenario -- and one that’s usually not the case, according to Goldman. As a result, a much larger amount of time and effort needs to be spent on the recordings.

Some courts have also recorded legal proceedings in proprietary formats or in sub-standard quality such as .mp3, which further complicates matters. Recording in low fidelity runs counter to the archival goals of the Oyez Project, which looks to archive the actual source audio without any loss in quality. Although the files will be enormous, with cloud technology available, size really doesn’t matter.

Goldman explained that courts throw away a lot of data by using recording formats with  lossy compression,  such as .mp3.  He argued that as time goes on and newer delivery standards come around that are incompatible with .mp3, there’s no way to go back and recover a lossless format to convert into a new standard. So the quality will continually degenerate. That’s why preserving uncompressed audio data is so important.

The pristine source audio is also desired to enhance the quality of mobile access to the recordings. The Oyez Project made the U.S. Supreme Court recordings mobile-friendly by creating a live stream that can be accessed by smartphone. They took the large recordings and cut them down into very small segments, enabling a user to search for specific parts of a legal proceeding. The content can also be downloaded, but by using the ISCOTUS NOW app, a person can make clips of the segments to use for various purposes.

The same is planned for federal appellate court and state supreme court recordings, but maintaining quality can be difficult, particularly if the source audio isn’t at an archival level.

“I suspect we will face those issues, and then we will have to struggle with how we make those materials publicly available and archivally-sound so that going forward, we can always make a conversion,” Goldman said. “I just have to do more preaching because I am not getting through to my parishioners about the importance of preservation and being able to make this accessible 50 or 100 years from now."

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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