Saturday, August 07, 2004

On Systematizing URLs for Judicial Opinions

A blog isn't a blog unless it occasionally obsesses over technogeek trivia. It's a quiet news week on the Daubert front, and so we'll take the opportunity now.

Over the years, our parent site, Daubert on the Web, has accumulated links to several hundred appellate decisions. Every now and then, we go back to shepardize those decisions and repair any broken links. We just completed that task for the Fifth Circuit.

It wasn't too bad, because the Fifth Circuit appears to be unusually conscientious. It posts all published and unpublished decisions, dating back to 1992, along with an exemplary search page, and its links appear to be fairly stable. We had to repair a few of the older ones, because the court's site appears to have been restructured at some point in the last couple of years, presumably during some overhaul designed to make it more comprehensive. But on the whole, there wasn't much that needed repair, and the Fifth Circuit made it easy to fix what did need fixing.

Still, it may not be bad sportsmanship to articulate some aspirational suggestions with which the experience leaves us.

First, the administrators of judicial websites need to be conscious, when they reorganize their sites, that many attorneys and other interested persons have probably already linked to the old URLs for the opinions, on the assumption that the links would be durable. We do not know how technically feasible it is, in a wholesale reorganization, to have the old URLs for the opinions point to the new ones. But since the URLs for judicial opinions are frequently organized by docket number or some other systematic numeric identifier, it seems as though it should be practicable.

Second, and while we're at it: Although we appreciate the fierce autonomy with which each court manages its own affairs, it would be a true boon, in the longer term, if some common conventions were adopted for the URLs of judicial opinions across courts. That goal seems especially workable for courts forming part of the same judicial system. It would be awfully nice, for example, if a uniform format were adopted by the federal courts permitting users to infer the proper URL so long as they knew the court, case number, and (perhaps) date of the opinion, without having to know each circuit's idiosyncracies. It would be even nicer if all opinions, from all circuits (or district courts, as more progress is made on posting their opinions on the web) were collected and made publicly accessible in a common format through some single site or interface -- building, perhaps, on Pacer. Lexis and Westlaw used to be the only people offering that functionality. Given what is now technologically possible, it's reasonable to propose that it be provided freely for all, by the judicial branch itself.

Third, to expand on an idea first drawn to our attention by Denise Howell, how hard would it be to make judicial opinions retrievable, at judicial websites, by citation to the appropriate reporter? The way most practitioners were trained, the unique identifier of interest for a judicial opinion is the opinion's citation from the relevant reporter. So long as that custom endures in legal practice and in legal citation, it is sensible to consider making the opinions electronically available by reference to that identifier. If someone needs to strike a deal with West Publishing to make this happen, perhaps the deal should be struck.


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Fed. R. Evid. 702: If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise, if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.