How to find the documents behind big legal cases

Earlier this year, I spent a month covering the trial for a dispute between Apple and Epic. The case was one of the biggest antitrust suits in recent memory, and it brought to light revelations about both companies and the larger tech industry, often in the form of legal filings. I (and other reporters) try to pick out the most relevant details from these filings for readers. But sometimes, the documents are worth checking out in their own right. A site called CourtListener makes that easier than it might sound — if you know how to look.

US federal court documents are supposed to be publicly available through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system. But as somebody who frequently uses PACER, I can confirm it’s a really frustrating system. Signing up is a hassle, it costs 10 cents to run a search or retrieve a single page of a document, and all those charges add up quickly if you’re hunting down information about a case. PACER is basically a video game loot box mechanic for the legal system.

This limits access to resources that can help people understand US law and countless individual news reports better. (Some journalists re-upload and link filings via Scribd or DocumentCloud, but not every outlet follows this practice.) It also walls off a lot of stuff that’s simply interesting or funny. Want to read about FBI agents hunting a possibly mythical cache of gold stolen from the US Treasury during the Civil War by a secessionist secret society and then hidden in an underground cave network? The court system has you covered. Or take this recent ruling on the Federal Trade Commission’s case against Facebook, which may include the most portentous description of MySpace and Friendster ever written:

At the dawn of our century, in the much earlier days of the internet, a number of websites began to offer what came to be known as “social networking” services.

If you’d like that in the form of a Star Wars opening crawl:

Fortunately, there’s an unofficial PACER workaround. Maintained by the nonprofit Free Law Project, CourtListener hosts a free and open archive of millions of filings. It contains court opinions, audio of oral arguments from trials, and something called the RECAP archive — which is where you’ll find a lot of the most interesting material. That includes the long back-and-forth between Apple and Epic, government allegations like the cryptocurrency fraud claims against late antivirus tycoon John McAfee, and important legal decisions like a judge tossing the aforementioned Facebook antitrust suit.

The RECAP archive is a giant crowdsourced library based on a browser extension of the same name. When a user with the RECAP extension logs into PACER and downloads a document, a copy of it gets saved to the archive. Anybody can access it from there, whether or not they’ve got the extension installed.

RECAP is dependent on PACER users sharing a file, so you generally can’t get documents that nobody has looked up. But if you’re reading about a lawsuit or a big criminal case in the news, there’s a good chance you can find details in the archive. (One catch: PACER covers the federal court system, so if somebody was sued or charged at a state level, you’re probably out of luck.)

Navigating CourtListener can be a little overwhelming. On the RECAP archive, it’s helpful to search by the name of one of the parties involved, then narrow your search by district or state with the “select jurisdictions” filter. For instance, if you know a company was sued in California, you can select the four California districts under the “Federal Districts” tab. Sorting by “Newest Cases First” can be helpful for lawsuits and criminal charges that were just filed, and “Newest Documents First” can be good for cases that were just decided. If you have one document from a case already, you can look for the case number listed at the top of each page and search that as well.

A screenshot of the “Select Jurisdictions” filter in the RECAP archive, showing the South, Central, Northern, and Eastern districts of California selected.

When you click on a case, you’ll get its docket: a long record of everything that’s happened. Near the start of the list, you’ll probably find a complaint or indictment containing the allegations against the defendant in the case. You may also see a list of exhibits, or evidence like email chains or images. Further down you could find orders, where a judge hands down a decision. If these documents have been uploaded to the archive, you’ll see a link to download the file. If they haven’t, RECAP can direct you to PACER if you have an account — in which case this also is a great time to install RECAP and start uploading.

It’s important to remember that court documents are written for companies, individuals, and agencies with a specific agenda, and they don’t necessarily tell the full story of an event. (For example: the FBI did not find that hidden gold.) Interpreting them often requires background knowledge about specific terms and prior cases, although there are resources that can help, like writer and attorney Orin Kerr’s guide to reading a judge’s opinion. Even so, they’re a valuable tool for digging into some of the biggest stories The Verge covers — and sometimes a lot of fun.

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