Investigating the Federal Court's PACER System: Collaboration Improves Access

Investigating the Federal Court’s PACER System: Collaboration Improves Access

Scales of JusticeThe Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center provides service-improvement consultations to state and federal public defense providers around the nation. Recently, the Deason Center collaborated with OIT to better utilize the federal courts’ Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) service. The Center needed to access and download several thousand records, as quickly and as efficiently as possible. So, they turned to OIT for help.

We had the opportunity to discuss the PACER project with Lane Duncan, Assistant Director of Integration Services in OIT, and learn about the success of this initiative.

Could you provide some information regarding PACER, the team, and the tools needed to work on this project?

PACER is a fee-based system designed to provide electronic access to federal courts documents.  It is notoriously easy to rack up thousands of dollars of search charges. We wanted to avoid that possibility and formed a team to tackle this project. Dr. Eric Godat, Research and Data Science Team Lead, and I initially worked with Dr. Victoria Smiegocki, Assistant Research Director, at the Deason Center.

PACERFiguring out what tools to use was the biggest challenge. After doing some research into the PACER system, it became clear that we would be unable to use the PACER automation interface to get what we needed.

We also consulted Greg Ivy, Associate Dean for SMU Law Library. He put us in touch with colleagues at Northwestern University’s SCALES OKN (Systematic Content Analysis of Litigation EventS Open Knowledge Network) project, who created a Python-based tool to scrape web pages from the PACER system. We worked with their development team to address some implementation difficulties and PACER system changes that broke some of the software’s key features. Their assistance allowed us to leverage the tool and access our needed documents.

What was the most challenging part of the project?

Because the PACER system isn’t designed for report automation, getting large numbers of documents out of the system is complex. The SCALES project’s tool works around this limitation by “web scraping.” That is: it simulates a human clicking through the PACER web pages, then saves them into individual files for later use. This technology isn’t robust, so it requires a fair bit of hand-holding:  we had to monitor the process as it was running, and we’d frequently need to re-run it after it would fail.

How long did it take to tackle the project?

We began digging into the PACER system in the spring of 2022 with the idea that we may need to look into that system for the SMU Human Trafficking data project. Once we were in touch with Northwestern University, we could move quickly, and within three weeks or so, we could download nearly 4,000 court dockets for the Deason Center.

What was your biggest takeaway?

SMU is increasingly turning to open-source technology for business process needs, and this was a great example of the academic community meeting an identified gap with a unique solution. The most important takeaway is that our problems are very similar across institutions. Our solutions to problems we face could be valuable to others, and it’s always worth the time to ask around and see if others have already solved the issues we’re facing here.

It’s exciting to learn about the vital work done across campus, and OIT jumps at the chance to be involved with projects that have the potential to make a difference, especially if it eases someone’s workload. In this case, not only did we have a chance to make something easier for SMU researchers, we recognized the potential impact of that research, and that it could make a difference far beyond.

PACER Project Benefits

Dr. Victoria Smiegocki shared, “The Deason Center is helping a federal defender office refine its internal data systems and identify best practices for attorneys. This project will help the office identify the most effective motion practices and obtain better charging and plea outcomes. We’re so grateful for OIT’s assistance.

The Office of Information Technology continues to showcase projects like these for our community’s awareness. Should you need assistance with automation and streamlining processes, we’d love to hear from you!

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Laurene Klassen and Lane Duncan

Laurene is the Director of SMU’s IT Training & Communications Team. She enjoys reading, writing, and outdoor activities with her family in her spare time.